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Can US Immigrant Detainees Have a #MeToo Movement?

Abuses Run Rampant in the Sprawling Network of Detention Centers

Women stand in a dormitory at the Adelanto immigration detention center, which is run by the Geo Group Inc (GEO.N), in Adelanto, California, U.S., April 13, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

The #MeToo movement has reached Hollywood, the press, restauranteurs, the White House, and even the gambling industry. But can it bring change for sexual assault victims in immigration detention?

Laura Monterrosa is a lesbian asylum seeker from El Salvador who is being held in the privately run Hutto Detention Center in Texas. Last year, she told authorities that she was sexually assaulted repeatedly by a female guard. When Laura said she would report her, the guard allegedly said, “Do you think they’ll believe you or me?” In December, the FBI launched a civil rights investigation looking into her case.

Meanwhile, local advocates say that Laura is facing punitive measures for coming forward. According to them, Laura says detention center officials have threatened to keep her in solitary confinement unless she retracts her allegations – a terrifying prospect for someone like Laura who, the advocates say, has attempted suicide in detention.

All the reasons #MeToo as a movement to raise awareness was urgently needed elsewhere are magnified in the sprawling network of jails holding more than 40,000 non-citizens, including Laura, at any time.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention system is hardly transparent, but many of its abuses are open secrets. As Human Rights Watch has documented, subpar medical care, and sexual misconduct and other abuses facing transgender detainees, have been persistent problems.

Immigration detainees are stuck in a system of extreme power imbalances. Immigrants – whether they just got to the US or have lived there all their lives – have no right to an appointed lawyer in immigration proceedings, and most detained immigrants go unrepresented. Often, this is down to an inability to pay and a shortage of lawyers taking cases in detention. Many are put in expedited removal – a process where immigration officers have virtually unchecked authority to evaluate and deport asylum seekers.

ICE provides no meaningful oversight to the hundreds of private detention centers and county jails which it uses on a contract basis. The result is that immigrant victims in detention like Laura may lack meaningful access to justice.

So, can Laura, or any detained immigrant, safely pursue her claims without retribution when she says “me too”? The answer depends not only on ICE stepping up to ensure her rights are respected, but on systemic reforms to increase oversight, transparency, and accountability in the system.

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