Immigration advocates charge that federal authorities are unable or unwilling to keep refugee women and children safe

SAN ANTONIO, TX - Attorneys from MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), the Immigration Rights and Civil Rights Clinics at the University of Texas Law School, Human Rights First, and the Law Office of Javier N. Maldonado, filed a complaint earlier this week with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) demanding the immediate investigation of and swift response to widespread allegations of sexual abuse and harassment at the detention center in Karnes City.

The Karnes detention center, which opened on August 1, 2014, detains over five-hundred mothers and their children, most of whom fled violence and persecution in Central America and are now seeking asylum in the U.S. The abuse allegations cited in the complaint include the exploitation of vulnerable women by facility guards and staff, such as:

  • removing female detainees from their cells late in the late evening and early morning hours for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts in various parts of the facility, and attempting to cover up these actions;
  • calling detainees their "novias," or "girlfriends" and requesting sexual favors from female detainees in exchange for money, promises of assistance with their pending immigration cases, and shelter when and if the women are released; and
  • kissing, fondling and/or groping female detainees in front of other detainees, including children.
  • Although this unlawful conduct was reported to Karnes Center personnel, to date, no reasonable actions have been taken to stop or prevent this abuse, or to prevent its escalation.

    "This is exactly why the federal government should not be in the business of detaining families," said Marisa Bono, staff attorney with MALDEF. "These women and children have fled horrific conditions in their home countries, including sexual violence and extortion. Guards using their respective positions of power to abuse vulnerable, traumatized women all over again is not only despicable, it's against the law."

    Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) in 2003 to address the problem of sexual abuse of persons in the custody of U.S. correctional agencies, including immigrant detention centers. DHS finalized PREA regulations earlier this year, adopting a zero-tolerance standard for sexual assault and rape in DHS facilities. All facilities are required to adopt and follow a PREA protocol to detect, prevent, and respond to sexual abuse.

    The complaint admonishes DHS for its failure to implement and oversee protocols effectively under PREA at Karnes, and questions DHS's ability to keep women and children safe. The Karnes Center guards, who are predominantly male, have free access to the detention cells and the women and children at any time, day or night, and some children over the age of thirteen have been separated from their mothers and placed in separate sleeping quarters without any explanation or warning.

    The facility is run by a private, for-profit prison company called The GEO Group, Inc. The detention center is not licensed under Texas state child welfare standards, making state oversight impossible. Immigrant and human rights advocates from across the country and Texas have called on the federal government to immediately close the Karnes facility and find alternatives to detaining women and children.

    Barbara Hines, Co-Director of the University of Texas Immigration Clinic and co-counsel in the lawsuit that closed the T. Don Hutto family detention center, said: "The government has no business detaining vulnerable mothers and children that it cannot protect from this type of abuse. These incidents are particularly disturbing because ICE has refused to release mothers and children on bond, even after they have shown a threshold asylum claim."

    This complaint follows on the heels of another complaint filed last week by MALDEF, Grassroots Leadership, University of Texas School of Law Civil Rights Clinic, and the Law Office of Javier N. Maldonado, alleging harsh conditions for women and children at the Karnes Center, including inadequate food, health and mental services, and disproportionate disciplinary tactics. Advocates have also noted that family detention of women and children seeking asylum violates human rights law and due process.

    Despite the calls to end family detention, the Department of Homeland Security is making plans to build a 2,500-bed family detention facility in Dilley, Texas.

    Today's complaint is available here. Last week's complaint is available here.

    Founded in 1968, MALDEF is the nation's leading Latino legal civil rights organization. Often described as the "Latino Legal Voice for Civil Rights in America" MALDEF promotes social change through advocacy, communications, community education and litigation in the areas of education, employment, immigrant rights and political access. For more information on MALDEF, please visit:

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    Copyright 2009 MALDEF — Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund