The ACLU of Texas Wednesday filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking damages for three women claiming they were sexually assaulted by guards at a Texas immigration detention center with a long history of abuse.
Named in the lawsuit is Donald Dunn, a former guard at Immigration and Customs Enforcement's T. Don Hutto immigration detention facility east of Austin. Dunn pled guilty last fall to multiple charges that he abused women detainees that he transported from Hutto to the nearby airport and Greyhound stations, prompting a national search for more victims. Ultimately, eight female victims came forward, saying Dunn abused them during transports.
The suit also names three ICE officials and private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America, which holds the contract to run the Hutto facility, saying they were “deliberately indifferent and willfully blind” of department regulations that would have kept Dunn from being alone with the victims. Dunn and other facility guards, the ACLU claims, regularly violated the rule that detainees not be transported without another officer of the same gender present. In the suit, the ACLU insists that routine lapses in policy may have led to other similar incidents of sexual abuse.
According to the lawsuit, each of the three women – from Eritrea, Brazil and Guatemala – had fled violence in their home countries, seeking asylum in the U.S. Each been released from Hutto and were awaiting hearings on their cases when they were assaulted at the airport and bus stops, the suit claims. The assaults occurred between October 2009 and May 2010, according to the suit.
Allegations of abuse have long plagued ICE's T. Don Hutto facility. Past allegations of sexual abuse sparked an ICE investigation in 2007, and eventually helped lead to the revamping of ICE detention standards in 2008. Heavy campaigning from the ACLU and immigrant rights groups eventually prompted ICE in 2009 to convert Hutto into a 500-bed facility solely for women seeking asylum in the U.S.
In a statement, Lisa Graybill, Legal Director for the ACLU of Texas, said, “The fact that these women sought sanctuary in the United States – only to find abuse at the hands of officials they thought would protect them – is wholly inconsistent with America's self-proclaimed reputation as a beacon of human rights and a protector of human dignity.”
ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen wouldn't comment on the ACLU's specific allegations, saying only that the agency keeps a strict “zero tolerance policy for any kind abusive or inappropriate behavior” for all employees, including private contractors like CCA. ICE and the Department of Homeland Security investigate all allegations of abuse or sexual misconduct, she added.
“Unfortunately, we believe these complaints are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Mark Whitburn, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Texas. As part of a nationwide effort to find instances of sexual abuse, Whitburn said records obtained by the ACLU show that since 2007, 185 complaints have been made to the Department of Homeland Security regarding sexual abuse in ICE custody, 56 of which were in Texas facilities. “Immigrants in detention are uniquely vulnerable to abuse, and those holding them in custody know it.
Many do not speak english, many – like our plaintiffs – have fled violence in their home countries, and are terrified of being returned,” Whitburn said.