In 2013, Rosanna Santos was allegedly sexually harassed by an immigration officer while detained at the York County Jail in Pennsylvania. According to a federal civil rights complaint filed earlier this year, the officer told Santos that if she didn't do what he told her to, she would be subjected to an "ass-fucking." Later, when she filed a complaint against him, she claimed she was put in solitary confinement "as retaliation."
According to a recent investigation by a watchdog organization working to end isolation in immigration detention centers, anywhere from 1,016 to 2,573 sexual abuse complaints (which included coerced sexual contact and sexual harassment) were filed by people in custody between January 2010 and July 2016. Ninety-seven percent of those cases were allegedly never investigated by officials.
Through several requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act, advocacy group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) found that overall, there were 14,693 complaints of sexual and physical abuse levied against Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Soon, however, it could become harder to track data like this, thanks to recent moves by immigration officials to purge records, including those related to sexual assaults, solitary confinement and deaths of people in its custody. According to the ACLU, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the record-keeping arm of the federal government, is considering allowing ICE to begin destroying documents related to detainees, operations, and more based on various timetables.
A document noting these requests was published on the Federal Register on July 14, though it's unclear if the public will be allowed to comment on this.
"This may seem like a run-of-the-mill government request for record-keeping efficiency," wrote Victoria Lopez, senior staff attorney for the ACLU National Prison Project. "It isn't. An entire paper trail for a system rife with human rights and constitutional abuses is at stake."
In her blog post, Lopez said that NARA has already "provisionally approved" ICE's proposal, which advocated for sexual assault and death records to be destroyed after 20 years, and reports about solitary confinement at three years. She also wrote that the explanations the agency offered were "troubling."
"The justification that's listed here in the Archives document," Lopez tells Broadly, "was that [these records] don't document significant actions of federal officials and that the information is sensitive and shouldn't be preserved. Certainly, the records that are being proposed for destruction touch on the the actions of federal officials, whether it has to do with sexual abuse or sexual assault in detention, deaths of people in detention or people being placed in solitary confinement. Those are clearly decisions that federal officials are making both through their policy and their actual practices in these facilities."
"We're talking about a detention system that has exploded in the last decade or so," she continues. "Many of these records are still particularly relevant for being able to conduct review and oversight of the agency and how they run their detention operations."
For CIVIC's investigation—they started noticing an increase in complaints of sexual assaults in detention centers in early 2016—co-executive director Christina Fialho tells Broadly they filed information requests with ICE, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the Office for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties (CRCL). After a year, the OIG was the only agency to respond.
Because they still have an outstanding request with ICE, Fialho says if NARA approves the agency's petition, they'll never get the information they're looking for. "ICE may try to destroy the evidence of its wrongdoing, but we will not allow them to operate with impunity behind closed doors," she continues. "We hope the National Archives upholds its commitment to open government and denies ICE's petition."
In a statement sent to Broadly, ICE acting press secretary Jennifer Elzea wrote: "This is routine, government record maintenance as prescribed by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). They are the ultimate arbiters of how long we keep records and when they should be destroyed." A request to NARA for more insight into how government records are managed was unanswered as of press time.