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Department of Homeland Security Finalizes Standards to End Sexual Violence in Immigration Detention Facilities

Today, the Department of Homeland Security issued its national standards to address sexual abuse in immigration detention facilities.

Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., March 7, 2014 – Today, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued its national standards to address sexual abuse in immigration detention facilities. The standards – which apply to facilities that house hundreds of thousands of immigration detainees annually – mark a pivotal step forward in the effort to protect DHS detainees from the devastation of sexual abuse.

Notably, DHS’ standards incorporate many of the key provisions long championed by JDI; in early 2013, JDI and its allies mobilized some 1,700 organizations and individuals to submit public comments on DHS’ draft standards, pushing for stronger protections. Nevertheless, the regulations contain several key shortcomings, including the lack of a firm compliance deadline that could leave up to half of all immigration detainees in long-term facilities vulnerable to abuse for most of this decade.

“Despite their shortcomings, the DHS standards are a milestone in the fight to protect the human rights of immigration detainees,” said Lovisa Stannow, Executive Director of Just Detention International. “Immigration detainees are uniquely vulnerable to sexual abuse. These regulations are long overdue and sorely needed.”

DHS issued its standards in response to a landmark 2012 executive memorandum from President Barack Obama, clarifying that the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) applied to all federal agencies with confinement facilities, and to a 2013 Congressional mandate. The President’s memo – which was released on the same day as the Department of Justice’s PREA standards – directed relevant federal agencies to release their own PREA standards. To date, DHS is the only agency that has fulfilled that directive.

The DHS standards constitute a strong foundation for reform and, if implemented fully, have the potential to reduce dramatically the sexual abuse of immigration detainees. Because of the lack of a definitive agency-wide compliance date, however, JDI will continue advocating for the swift and effective implementation of the standards in all DHS facilities and urges lawmakers and advocates to do the same. Also based on weaknesses in the PREA standards, JDI will continue to work with DHS to improve protections for survivors of sexual abuse in detention and for detainees who are being transported under DHS authority.

Despite these flaws, DHS’ final standards are considerably stronger than its draft. Released in January 2013, the draft standards included inadequate protection from retaliation for detainees who report sexual abuse or cooperate in investigations of abuse, an incomplete definition of sexual abuse, and flawed provisions on data collection and incident reviews. Following recommendations from JDI and its allies, the final standards are significantly improved in all these areas.

Stannow said, “Sexual abuse in detention is a horrific crime. The right to be free from this violence is unconditional, and must never depend on where, or by what agency, a person is being held.”

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