Since the beginning of Maria Hinojosa’s career, immigration has been at the core of her work as a journalist. And one of the things she’s focused on in her reporting has been what happens in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
More than a decade after her documentary film about sexual abuse in ICE detention, allegations of harassment and abuse continue to happen. For this episode, Maria Hinojosa teamed up with investigative journalist Zeba Warsi. Both women and immigrants, they wanted to find out what has changed — if anything — on how ICE handles complaints of sexual abuse from detainees.
Over the past two years, Futuro Investigates interviewed at least a dozen immigrants complaining about their time in detention. The patterns of abuse reflected in the data also emerged in several of their allegations, illustrating how this is a systemic issue.
One of the women we spoke to is named Viviana. Viviana is not her real name, but we are using it to protect her identity.
Viviana is from Venezuela and left her home country in 2014. She was 21 years old at the time and was studying law. Her family was part of a political party opposing the government. She told us that they began to receive death threats.
Her family moved to Panama. But she says they were victims of xenophobia. After seven years in the country, Viviana and her mother decided to leave. They made the arduous journey across the U.S.-Mexico border in September 2021. They were detained in Texas and the U.S. Border Patrol handed them over to an ICE processing center in Houston.
Viviana was eventually transferred hundreds of miles away to the Stewart Detention Center, an ICE facility in Georgia.
During her first weeks detained at Stewart, Viviana was prescribed medication that gave her a severe allergic reaction.
“This is when I met this male nurse,” Viviana said. The nurse was a short, white man with a beard.
Viviana says that while she was at her most vulnerable, that male nurse sexually abused her. And she’s not the only one — at least five women came forward and complained against the male nurse. In addition, between 2021 and 2022 there were at least five other allegations of sexual abuse at Stewart, according to ICE’s own reports and public records obtained by The Intercept and reviewed by Futuro Investigates.
“Justice, for me, means that this man is not allowed to work at this detention center or any other facility,” Viviana said. She wants the nurse to be brought to criminal court.
People detained by ICE are supposed to be protected by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA. In 2003, the U.S. signed PREA into law, aiming to protect incarcerated and detained people from sexual assault. It took 11 years to fully implement PREA in all immigration detention agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in 2014.
Today, ICE claims it thoroughly implements PREA and has “zero tolerance for all forms of sexual abuse or assault.” But our reporting shows that most sexual abuse complaints aren’t being investigated. Of the more than 300 complaints listed in the records we received, only 40% of cases triggered any action.
The data obtained by Futuro Investigates reveals a disturbing trend beyond the Stewart Detention Center. This trend shows that detention officers, contractual guards, and ICE employees are accused of sexually assaulting the individuals they are meant to protect.
For more on this investigation, visit futuroinvestigates.org
Featured illustration by Mya Pagán.