Aerial view of the tent city at the Marcelino Serna Port of Entry in September in Tornillo, Texas. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre/Ivan Pierre Aguirre Sanders/Wingo. SF Chronicle.
Aerial view of the tent city at the Marcelino Serna port of entry in Tornillo, Texas in September. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre/Ivan Pierre Aguirre Sanders/Wingo, SF Chronicle.

Thousands of undocumented minors have allegedly been sexually abused while in U.S. custody

New documents show alarming rates of sexual abuse suffered by undocumented migrant minors held in federal custody over the past four years.


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The reality of immigration policies in the United States seems only to become increasingly problematic with time.

Amid reports of thousands of undocumented families separated upon arrest, and the detention of minors who crossed the border without papers, among other troubling developments, it’s difficult to keep track of what is truly happening.

In August 2018, ProPublica reported on the physical, verbal and sexual abuse to which thousands of young people in federal custody have been exposed. The case of the Southwest Key Company, in particular - responsible for managing detention centers - shocked the media when the story of an employee charged with 11 counts of sexual offenses was published. The man was accused of having "harassed and abused eight unaccompanied immigrant children in a period of almost one year in one of the company's facilities in Mesa, Arizona."

Nearly a year later, the failure of the government's zero tolerance immigration policy, and the resulting administrative chaos it caused surrounding the handling of thousands of detained immigrants, has been aggravated by a new report alleging sexual abuse inside detention facilities.

According to documents from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to which Axios had access, between Oct. 2014 and July 2018, the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement "received 4,556 complaints, and the Department of Justice received 1,303 complaints. This includes 178 allegations of sexual abuse by adult staff. "

According to Representative Ted Deutch (D-FL), his office was able to access the documents thanks to an order issued by the House Judiciary Committee last January.

"This behavior – it's despicable, it's disgusting, and this is just the start of questions that HHS is going to have to answer about how they handle these and what's happening in these facilities," Deutch told Axios.

About the complaint figures, he added: "This works out on average to one sexual assault by HHS staff on an unaccompanied minor per week.”

For its part, the Office of Refugee Resettlement issued a statement last week accusing the representative of "lying."

"Congressman Deutch mischaracterized data on allegations of sexual abuse, sexual harassment or inappropriate sexual behavior made by minors at care facilities operated by HHS grantees," said interim office director Jonathan Hayes, as he attempted to explain that the incidents would have been between detained minors, CNN reported.

However, while most of the allegations included one child abusing another, there are 178 complaints against shelter employees, especially "the youth-care workers who escort the children everywhere they go," NPR's Southwest Correspondent John Burnett explained.

"The complaints range from inappropriate romantic relationships between children and adults to touching genitals to watching children shower," he added.

At least 19 accusations also included adults who didn’t work at the facilities.

Although HHS has insisted that its protocols take these types of behaviors "very seriously" within the shelters, these incidents add to a pattern of mistreatment and suspicious circumstances within federal facilities - including the death of immigrants while in ICE custody, and mistreatment in the detention cells - that again call into question the humanitarian conditions of immigrants detained in the U.S.


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