Following The New York Times‘ exposé on Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, sexual abuse and harassment have become a flashpoint. So much so that #MeToo – a hashtag victims of these predatory behaviors have used to talk about their experiences – is on the shortlist for Time‘s Person of the Year. As people in different industries courageously share their stories, three women are drawing attention to the sexual abuse they have faced at an immigrant detention center in Texas. In a letter to immigration advocacy group Grassroots Leadership, Laura Monterrosa, a 23-year-old from El Salvador, detailed the abuse she endured at T. Don Hutto Residential Center. Immigration advocates in Austin are demanding answers from law enforcement about the allegations.
In the letter, Monterrosa described how two guards sexually assaulted her starting in June. Monterrosa – who advocates say didn’t immediately report the sexual abuse for fear of being deported or retaliated against – motivated two other women to come forward with similar allegations.
One of the two women has since been transferred to a Laredo detention center, while Monterrosa and the other, unnamed woman remain at T. Don Hutto detention center. Williamson County has not given Laura sufficient information about the status of the investigation. On Friday, lawyers working on behalf of the detainees learned that the county had passed the cases on to the FBI. Grassroots Leadership held a press conference outside the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office on Monday morning to demand answers and accountability from law enforcement.
“Williamson County, who has jurisdiction over the Hutto detention center, has chosen over and over to protect ICE over the women who are detained over there,” said Claudia Muñoz, immigration programs director at Grassroots Leadership. Williamson County press officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“When (Williamson County investigators) first came to interview Laura, they followed this pattern that usually follows when women who are victims of sexual abuse come forward,” Muñoz said. Laura found herself in an interview room with representatives from US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Core Civic – an Austin residential reentry center – and Williamson County.
“Williamson County allowed ICE to have control over this investigation, so ICE was accusing Laura of lying, of making this up to benefit from this, and Williamson County just allowed it to happen,” Muñoz said.
According to Muñoz, the greatest protection detainees have from further abuse is their voice and the support of the community. The power of Monterrosa’s voice is evident in the fact that her story inspired more women to speak out. She also has the support of her community. “Laura has a whole community behind her asking for [her] release, because we know that women who are victims of sexual abuse should be believed, not retaliated against,” Muñoz stated.
In early November, ICE told Patch that officials could not comment on pending investigations, but later, the agency told Grassroots Leadership that Monterrosa’s case was completed and unsubstantiated.
“The agency is committed to ensuring all individuals in our custody are treated in a safe, secure and humane manner,” Nina Pruneda wrote to the outlet. “Accusations of alleged unlawful conduct are investigated thoroughly, and appropriate action is taken to ensure the safety and security of those involved and the others in ICE custody.”
Monterrosa is not the first to accuse officials at T. Don Hutto – an all-women facility – of sexual misconduct. One of the cases led to formal charges against a former guard for allegedly groping women in his custody while transporting them to the airport or bus station, Patch reports.
Zulma Franco, a former detainee at Hutto and current US resident, alleges sexual abuse at the detention center dates back to at least 2009. “I had friends who would confide in me what was happening to them,” Franco told Remezcla. “But most were too afraid to speak up for fear of being deported. It was a pattern. You knew when a guard came looking for someone it could be code for something else.”
The issue of sexual abuse is, as the ACLU states, not just limited to one detention center; it’s part of a larger systemic problem. The legal aid organization has received complaints from nearly every state in which these facilities are located, with Texas leading in number of allegations. Earlier this year, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) filed a complaint against the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for not investigating these cases. Though OIG received more than 33,000 complaints of physical and sexual abuse between 2010 and 2016, it investigated less than one percent, finding most of the claims unsubstantiated, NBC News reports.
And while DHS calls the allegations in the complaint “grossly inaccurate,” advocates say that its lack of inaction sends one clear message. “By not properly investigating each allegation of sexual assault, our government sends a message that sexual abuse of immigrants will be tolerated,” said CIVIC Executive Director Christina Fialho to NBC News. “Immigrants who have survived sexual trauma in detention are re-victimized by an ineffective or non-existent investigation process.”