When Congress enacted the Prison Rape Elimination Act, it did so in the hope of curbing sexual assaults in facilities across the country. But today, with new rules to protect prisoners being finalized, the Department of Homeland Security is demanding that immigrants held in detention centers be exempted.
That's outrageous. Of course Congress expected the law, and any regulations drafted as a result of it, to cover immigrants detained while they fight deportation cases. The plain language of the bill says so. The co-sponsors of the bill, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.), have said so. A federal commission created by the law convened a hearing in Los Angeles in 2006 to focus specifically on sexual abuse in immigrant detention facilities because it considered it part of its mandate.
Yet the Department of Homeland Security is now squabbling over whether it or the Department of Justice has the authority to write rules that protect immigrants.
Isn't it obvious that protecting detainees is more important than who is the boss of whom? Detained immigrants are just as vulnerable to assault as any other prisoners, yet they're especially reluctant to report it. Unlike criminal defendants, detainees have no right to a court-appointed lawyer; that means they're often left with no advocate they can turn to. They are held in remote facilities, often far from legal clinics and family. And language creates an additional barrier to reporting abuse.
None of this is news to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. In fact, she has repeatedly vowed to improve conditions at detention facilities and says the agency has a zero-tolerance policy for any kind of abuse. Nevertheless, between 2007 and 2011, immigrants reported nearly 200 incidents of alleged sexual abuse, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. More than a dozen of those alleged assaults took place in facilities in Southern California.
The Obama administration needs to put an end to the bureaucratic infighting. Whether the Justice Department rules are applied or Homeland Security adopts its own regulations, new protections must be established for immigrant detainees. For instance, same-sex guards should be assigned to conduct pat-downs, and there should be background checks on all guards. Detainees should be provided with up to 20 days to report an attack as part of an internal grievance system that preserves a victim's right to file a civil rights claim.
Rape is a crime. To apply the new regulations to some and not others would create a two-tier system of justice. That's not acceptable. Immigrants who are detained while they fight deportation (and who, by the way, have not generally been charged with, much less convicted of, a crime) deserve the same protections provided to criminals sentenced to maximum-security prisons.