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Reforms Have Failed to Prevent Sexual Abuse in ICE Jails, Report Reveals

Reporting by Futuro Investigates and Latino USA found officials are not properly addressing detainees’ complaints.

A damning new investigation by journalists Maria Hinojosa and Zeba Warsi examines how immigration officials have failed to properly address complaints of sexual abuse from people held in detention centers. The report from Futuro Investigates and Latino USA details how women in jails run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, have been sexually abused, often in a medical setting when they are at their most vulnerable. It comes more than a decade after Hinojosa’s report for PBS Frontline about sexual abuse in ICE detention. But allegations of abuse have continued. “If you complain, you are going to be threatened,” says Hinojosa, who notes there is still “constant coercion” in detention, despite earlier claims of reform.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A warning to our viewers and listeners: This story contains descriptions of sexual abuse.

We begin today’s show with a disturbing new investigation into how immigration officials have failed to properly address complaints of sexual abuse from people held in detention centers. The damning new report by Maria Hinojosa and Zeba Warsi, two immigrant women and journalists, examines how women in Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, jails have been sexually abused, often in a medical setting when they’re at their most vulnerable.

The report is out today from Futuro Investigates, the investigative unit of the Pulitzer Prize-winning news organization Futuro Media, and Latino USA. It comes more than a decade after Maria Hinojosa’s report for PBS Frontline about sexual abuse in ICE jails. But allegations of abuse have continued.

Maria will join us in a minute, but first this clip from the report, when she and Zeba speak with a Venezuelan migrant who was using the pseudonym Viviana for safety, describing her first meeting with a male nurse employed at ICE’s Stewart Detention Center in Georgia.

ZEBA WARSI: During her first weeks detained at Stewart, Viviana had a urinary tract infection. She was prescribed medication that gave her a severe allergic reaction.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Your face is swollen. Your lips are swollen. You were unable to breathe. And you were feeling incredibly scared.

VIVIANA: Ahí es que conozco a este enfermero, cuando me sucedió eso.

MARIA HINOJOSA: She tells us that in that moment of total vulnerability, that’s when she met this male nurse, a short white man with a beard. And we should warn you: The following descriptions of her visits are explicit. They are hard to listen to. But we also believe that they’re necessary to understand what Viviana and other women go through.

VIVIANA: Me dice como que si puedo bajarme un poco el pantalón para ver “aquí.”

MARIA HINOJOSA: So, he’s using a stethoscope to put it on your lower body. So, just to describe what you’re showing me is that he takes the stethoscope, and he basically puts it right where a woman’s ovary might be.

VIVIANA: Y me decía “abre la boca,” y yo “aaah,” abro la boca más, y me decía “aaah” y se reía “ajá ajá” y reía.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Viviana told us that while examining her with the stethoscope, the nurse asked her to open her mouth and then to open it wider. He then stepped away and typed a question into Google Translate. And this made her feel even more uncomfortable.

VIVIANA: Era algo como si quería saber si tengo novio.

MARIA HINOJOSA: So, at this point, he writes a note to you that asks you if you have a boyfriend. Te pregunta si tienes un novio.

VIVIANA: Sí.

AMY GOODMAN: [Inaudible] had also reported they were abused by the same male nurse at Stewart. Let’s go to another clip from the new investigation.

MARIA HINOJOSA: So, once women started to arrive at Stewart, this nurse started seeing female patients. And Viviana said he started abusing them.

This nurse and his abuse, you believe, was not a secret to anybody who had spent any time inside Stewart, whether they were his colleagues or people who were detained. ¿Tú sientes que todo mundo sabía de este enfermero?

VIVIANA: Claro.

ZEBA WARSI: After that second incident with the nurse, Viviana returned to her cell and broke down in tears. She told other detainees what happened to her.

VIVIANA: Yo llego a estar en la celda y lo empiezo a hablar.

MARIA HINOJOSA: So, you feel like you were one of the people who helped the other women start naming what was happening.

VIVIANA: Y ahí empieza una de Nicaragua, una de El Salvador, y me dicen “me pasó lo mismo.”

ZEBA WARSI: Women from different countries told her that they suffered similar abuses from the same male nurse. We’ve reviewed documents that show that at least five women came forward and complained against the male nurse. One of them was also another young woman from Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the new investigation called “Immensely Invisible,” which found the pattern of sexual abuse complaints in ICE detention goes beyond the Stewart jail in Georgia. Women were only brought to Stewart in 2020 after ICE had to shut down the Irwin County Detention Center, also in Georgia, when a whistleblower nurse there exposed forced hysterectomies and other invasive gynecological procedures by Dr. Mahendra Amin, who was contracted by LaSalle Corrections, which runs Irwin for ICE.

In 2020, Democracy Now! spoke to a survivor of gynecological abuse while detained at Irwin. Jaromy Floriano Navarro described how she was scheduled for an unwanted hysterectomy while held at Irwin between 2019 and September 2020, until she was deported to Mexico, she believed, in retaliation for speaking up about the abuse. Again, a warning to our audience: Her account is extremely disturbing.

JAROMY FLORIANO NAVARRO: And from day one that I met Dr. Amin, he said, “OK, you need surgery.” He did a ultrasound, vaginal ultrasound, with a wand. And I didn’t even know he was going to do that. To be honest with you, I didn’t know that I was going to have to take my pants off or lay on that bed and let him look at me. I didn’t know that. Nobody ever told me that I was going have a vaginal ultrasound. …

They took me back to see Dr. Amin from March to July at least 25 times. They would take me out constantly to go see him. He would — he would always check me. If it wasn’t with his fingers, then it would be with the wand. And to be honest with you, it was uncomfortable each and every time. I didn’t like anything he ever did. I didn’t like his posture. I didn’t like the way he stood in front of me or rested his hand on my knee as he did the vaginal search or whatever he was doing. And it was uncomfortable, to be honest with you.

He kept telling me, every single time I would see him, that I was going to have a surgery. But for some reason, I never knew when the surgery was going to be.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Maria Hinojosa, the Pulitzer Prize-winning founder of Futuro Media, host of Latino USA, which collaborated on this new investigation called “Immensely Invisible,” about the ongoing pattern of sexual abuse in ICE detention.

Maria, welcome back to Democracy Now! This is such a harrowing investigation. Talk about all that you have learned. This is over a decade after you did this big PBS investigation.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Amy, you know, we are journalists. The work that we do is actually to serve. And we believe, in our work, that when we put sunlight, when we put sun — right? — when we uncover something, that because we believe we live in such an advanced democratic country, that we believe things are going to get better. And they don’t. In this particular case, on the question of people — men, women, children — in this case, we’re reporting about women — being sexually abused continuously at government-run immigrant detention centers, consistently gets worse, actually. It doesn’t get better.

One of the things that we uncovered with this piece with Zeba Warsi from the PBS NewsHour is that one of the things that ICE is trying to do is to use transfers — this is a term that now you’re going to begin to hear more about, those of you who care about this kind of reporting — transfers as a way to deal with immigrants and refugees who are making complaints, or transfers in order to deal with one immigrant detention center that is shut down because of abuse, and then people are transferred to another detention facility, where they are said, “Now you’re going to be safe. Now you’re going to be safe,” or, “You’re going to be transferred from one to another, and now things are going to get better.” In fact, we have seen that it’s a form of punishment. It’s a way of shuffling off the problem, not dealing with the problem.

Amy, as you know, we have been friends and colleagues for decades now. And when I uncovered the abuse in the Frontline in 2011, it was horrific. Senator Dick Durbin goes on the Senate floor and says, “Because of the Frontline, that is why PREA, Prison Rape Elimination Act, must be offered in immigrant detention facilities.” And here we are, uncovering yet again that ICE investigates itself. What is that? They’re investigating themselves.

And finally, we have a very specific case of women coming forward, taking agency — which is part of our investigation, right? — is that they are not just victims, but they’re also taking agency, speaking up, complaining about one male nurse, who, as far as we know, has not lost his license and who sexually abused them continuously when they were seen — the nurse — when you’re in a vulnerable — just like the cut that we just heard, which is horrific. When women refugees and immigrants are at their most vulnerable, this is when they are being exposed to being abused by medical personnel. It is horrific, Amy. I had to go into a whole other series of therapy because of this exposure yet again.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Maria, reviewed medical records. They showed the male nurse had been working at Stewart Detention Facility, the jail in Georgia, since at least 2018. What’s known about his employment now?

MARIA HINOJOSA: We know that he has not lost his license. We know who he is. We tried to communicate. Zeba called him. He hung up. We do not know — we know that there is no kind of official complaint against him, nothing that has been legally brought on by ICE or any of the CoreCivic-run detention facilities where he may have worked. So, he is a predator, and he remains out there.

And by the way, Amy, if you have a criminal mind — there’s a TV show, right? Criminal Minds. If you have a criminal mind, you know exactly where to go to find a job. You go to ICE, because you know now that because there is — they need to fill positions, there aren’t even background checks. And you have access to men, to women and to children in trauma, and you know that they will more than likely not complain, because, as we talk about in this piece, if you complain, you’re going to be threatened, like the women who we spoke to. They were told that they were going to be sent to prison, that they were going to be deported immediately — constant coercion and threats.

This is horrific. This, Amy, we know. Sadly, you and I will be gone, and they’ll make Hollywood movies, we hope, about how this was happening in the United States and how everybody was just like, “How was this happening?” It’s happening today.

AMY GOODMAN: Women who are abused in detention are supposed to be protected by the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA. Can you talk about the legislation and the protections ICE and private prison corporations like CoreCivic have repeatedly ignored?

MARIA HINOJOSA: So, the Prison Rape Elimination Act was created for prisons, right? It’s a way in which to protect people behind bars when they are being sexually assaulted. It is a way in which they can have kind of an independent way to complain.

But this, as we know, because immigrants in detention — we do not have the same legal rights. We have no legal rights, zero due process. Senator Dick Durbin was so moved by what we uncovered in 2011 in the Frontline, which you can watch on Frontline, on YouTube, that those protections, which is that somebody who’s held can make an independent complaint, has access to a way to make this complaint, to follow up on the complaint, that they’re — in the case of ICE, what Zeba was able to see has changed — right? — is that now you have the protocol of having a sign all over, which is really dystopian, because the abuse continues to happen, but now you have signs everywhere that say, “By the way, if you’re being abused, you should not be being abused, and you can call this number for help.” And what we uncovered is, as you heard Viviana and Mari saying, those signs mean nothing for the people who are being held. Absolutely nothing. And that’s what’s changed, that now there’s a sign up. But it doesn’t mean that there’s a legal protection for women, in this case, who are complaining against sexual abuse.

By the way, Amy, for the immigrants who are held in detention, the legal path for them is incredibly complicated, because, again, they have no due process, because, like me, they were not born in this country. And as a result, you have no due process, when you’re in immigrant proceedings.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Maria Hinojosa, we’re going to link to this incredible investigation you’ve done, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, founder of Futuro Media, host of Latino USA, the investigation into sexual assault of migrants held at ICE detention jails.

Coming up, the acclaimed author Isabel Allende. Back in 30 seconds.

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