Twenty days after fleeing her small town in El Salvador last summer, Laura Monterrosa made it to the Texas side of the Rio Grande. The trip hadn’t been easy — Monterrosa described it as “one of the most horrible experiences” of her life. Though she occasionally joined other migrants on her 1,600 mile journey, Monterrosa largely traveled alone. She said she slept outdoors, begged strangers for food and spare change, and dug through the garbage for meals. Despite all of this, she said, the trip was worth it. Monterrosa had been physically and sexually abused by her family from a young age. Her grandmother forced her into prostitution when she was a teenager; her uncle beat her out of her sexual orientation — Monterrosa is gay — and raped her on multiple occasions. She had been the target of homophobic gang violence that culminated in a threat on her life. In the U.S., she hoped, things would be different — and most importantly, she would be safe.
“I didn’t come here because I wanted to,” she said when we spoke by phone in late December. “I was forced.”
Monterrosa, who is 23, spoke to me from the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, a 512-bed detention facility for immigrant women in Taylor, Texas, where she had been held for the past six months. The facility is owned and operated by CoreCivic, the country’s second-largest private prison company. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has an agreement with Williamson County, allowing it to provide “residential care of alien females” in the region. The county subcontracted these duties to CoreCivic.) Immigrants in ICE custody, including the women held at Hutto, are considered “administrative detainees.” They are “only held in custody to assure their process throughout the administrative hearing process,” not because of any crimes they may have committed. Additionally, since immigration cases are handled in civil courts, ICE detainees don’t have the right to a free government-appointed lawyer.
As of 2010, per CoreCivic’s contract with the government, a minimum of 461 women must be detained at Hutto each day at a per diem rate of $95.20. Many, like Monterrosa, are asylum seekers who are detained indefinitely while their cases are heard. “I thought I would be protected here,” said Monterrosa. Instead, she said, abuse similar to what she experienced in her home country continued — this time, allegedly at the hands of a female guard, who Monterrosa said began groping her shortly after she arrived at Hutto in June. The abuse continued for months.
Monterrosa said two other guards witnessed her being groped. “They knew everything,” she said, but “they stayed quiet, and I did, too.” Last fall, Monterrosa reported what happened to an employee of Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based advocacy organization that has a visitation program at Hutto. “I was depressed; I didn’t feel much. They reminded me that my life was important, that my life mattered,” Monterrosa said. “I wasn’t able to tell them what was happening to me at first, but after a time, I told them everything.” Grassroots Leadership told The Outline that Monterrosa was initially unsure about going public with her allegations and, in early November, decided to write an anonymous letter detailing the abuse in case she wanted to call attention to it without using her name. But on November 3, CoreCivic received an anonymous call about the abuse Monterrosa experienced; her advocates think it was one of the guards who witnessed her being assaulted.
Claudia Muñoz, Grassroots Leadership’s immigration programs director, told The Outline that two CoreCivic officials interviewed Monterrosa the day they received the call. Muñoz said Monterrosa “didn’t feel comfortable” speaking with the CoreCivic officials, but did so anyway because they threatened to place her in solitary confinement if she didn’t comply with their investigation. On November 6, Monterrosa was interviewed by officials from ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility and two deputies from the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office. Muñoz said they asked Monterrosa whether her relationship with the guard was consensual. “They treated me like I wasn’t a victim — like I was a criminal,” Monterrosa said. “They treated me like a liar. I didn’t feel like they were helping me; I felt like they were accusing me of something.”
ICE and the sheriff’s office closed Monterrosa’s case in late November. ICE spokesperson Nina Pruneda told Spectrum News that Monterrosa’s account “could not be corroborated” and her case “lacked evidence.” In a statement to The Outline, the San Antonio division of the FBI, which had picked up the investigation a week before the Spectrum News report was published, confirmed that they were looking into it but declined to comment further. When reached for comment, a CoreCivic spokesperson referred The Outline back to Pruneda, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
According to Grassroots Leadership, Monterrosa’s assailant had been temporarily reassigned while ICE and the sheriff’s office conducted their investigation, but has since been returned to her post among the facility’s general population. “I just saw her 15 minutes ago,” Monterrosa said when we spoke on December 21. “I feel completely defenseless. I can’t do anything. I’m locked up here.”
Monterrosa struggled to find acceptance in her country. She told me her family didn’t have a lot of money when she was growing up, a problem that was exacerbated after her mother died when she was eight years old. When Monterrosa was twelve, her grandmother started making her have sex with men for money. When she was a teenager, her uncle beat and raped her to “convert” her sexuality. She had already tried running away once before — she went to Honduras — but her uncle managed to track her down and brought her back home. By the time she was 23, things were seemingly coming together: She worked at a hospital and liked her job there. She had friends, or so she thought. She said her coworkers began harassing her because of her sexual orientation, and that their taunts eventually turned into physical abuse.
In 2016, El Salvador had the world’s highest rate of femicide. Queer women like Monterrosa are especially at risk. A January 2017 report by Human Rights First found that despite hate crime laws implemented in 2015, violence against LGBT people in El Salvador remains rampant, perpetrated not only by the country’s gangs but also occasionally by police and other law enforcement. The day before Monterrosa left El Salvador, people associated with a gang showed up at her home and beat her, telling her she had 24 hours to leave town before they killed her. She left the next morning.
Once she made it to the border, Monterrosa was apprehended and put into ICE custody. Since she told border patrol that she was afraid of returning to her home country, she was detained and eventually given a “credible fear” screening, an interview where an official from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) determines whether asylum seekers are in danger of being persecuted if they return to their home countries. Migrants who “pass” these interviews move on to the next step in the asylum process. Those who don’t pass have their cases reviews by a judge, allowing them to appeal the case before they’re slated for deportation. (Monterrosa passed her credible fear screening but was not granted asylum, and has since appealed that decision.) What happens next is up to ICE. Under previous administrations, the asylum seekers were often released, granting them a relative degree of freedom while fighting their deportation cases. The release of asylum seekers slowed down during Obama’s final year in office and has all but stopped under Trump. In 2015, only 47 percent of asylum seekers were released from detention. Last April, Rolling Stone reported that ICE had “begun blanket rejections” of parole for asylum seekers.
Though Monterrosa had difficulty acclimating to being detained, she said she met a guard who seemed nicer than the others. “At first, I thought she wanted to help me. I told her my whole life story. I told her about why I came here.” After she had been at Hutto for “about a week,” Monterrosa said, the guard “asked me if I liked women. When I told her my sexual orientation, she said ‘Great!’ And that’s when she started touching me.” Monterrosa said she initially tried to dismiss the groping as accidental. “After the third or fourth time, I told her to stop,” she said, but the guard refused. “One time, she took me into the bathroom and touched my private parts,” Monterrosa said. “My hope disappeared in that moment. I didn’t think that, in the place where I was seeking refuge, the same thing would happen as in my country.” Monterrosa was so shaken by her experience at Hutto that she considered giving up her asylum case and returning to El Salvador.
In August 2009, the Obama administration announced its plan to transform the country’s vast immigrant into what then-ICE director John Morton called a “truly civil detention system.” That started with ending family detention at Hutto, where substandard conditions and mistreatment of underaged detainees led to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit two years earlier. The new and improved Hutto was supposed to be a “clear departure from historical detention settings.”
A year later, a Hutto guard named Donald Dunn was accused of groping several women detained at Hutto. All of Dunn’s victims were asylum seekers. Mark Whitburn, one of the ACLU attorneys who represented Dunn’s victims, said at the time that the complaints against Dunn were “the tip of the iceberg.”
LGBT detainees are especially at risk of abuse. A 2013 report by the Center for American Progress (CAP) documented nearly 200 reports of abuse of LGBT detainees in detention facilities across the country between 2008 and 2013, ranging from verbal abuse to sexual assault. Sharita Gruberg, the author of the report and associate director of the center’s LGBT Research and Communications Project, told The Outline that transgender women are most vulnerable. “It’s staggering how much higher the rates are,” Gruberg said. “Detention is dangerous for everybody. It’s particularly dangerous for vulnerable populations, which is why it’s so critical to not detain people who are at risk of sexual assault.”
“I didn’t think that, in the place where I was seeking refuge, the same thing would happen as in my country.”
Miranda*, a transgender woman from Mexico who was detained by ICE for two years, said she was regularly the target of physical and sexual harassment at the hands of other detainees. (Because her asylum case is ongoing, Miranda’s attorney requested that she be addressed by a pseudonym.) “I was beaten and raped by people in Mexico,” she told The Outline. “One day I decided I was done with all of that and came to the United States. It was a very difficult journey, but when you’re tired of the treatment, you just want to be free. You don’t think about the consequences. I wasn’t thinking about anything; I just wanted to be safe.” She came to the U.S. in 2000 and lived on Long Island, where she worked as a line cook. In 2015, she was arrested for a DWI and her fingerprints were recorded by the State Department of Corrections, giving ICE access to her name, address, and other identifying information. A year later, ICE showed up at her home and arrested her on immigration charges. Miranda was detained at the Orange County Correctional Facility in Goshen, New York and held among its male population despite being a transgender woman. The facility, which is operated by the county sheriff’s office, houses both ICE detainees and inmates who are being held on criminal charges.
“The sexual harassment started the first day I stepped in the jail,” Miranda said. In December 2016, a detainee approached her while she was taking a shower and punched her in the face. The next day, the same detainee came into her dorm while she was sleeping and rubbed his semen on her face. When Miranda told a corrections officer what happened to her, she was placed in solitary confinement, where she remained for eight months.
Miranda’s original attorney had filed an asylum claim based on her identity as a gay person from Mexico — since she hadn’t undergone hormonal therapy, she felt she couldn’t tell him she was transgender. Her claim was denied in April 2016. “She was going to be put on a plane to Mexico the next day,” said Nabila Taj, an immigration attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services who currently represents Miranda pro bono through the New York Family Unity Project. “I was calling the Board of Immigration Appeals and the deportation officer every hour for an emergency stay of removal to get them to send Miranda back,” Taj said. Miranda was spared from deportation and transferred to the Hudson County Correctional Facility in New Jersey. Taj said Miranda was offered one alternative: Detention at a transgender-specific facility in California. In 2011, ICE created a separate detention space for gay and transgender detainees at the Santa Ana City Jail, which it called a “gay and trans pod.” That pod was split in two four years later, separating gay and trans detainees in order to provide more specialized services for each group. The Santa Ana government ended its contract with ICE in 2017. The final remaining detainees were transferred to other facilities last May.
As of December 2016, Santa Ana’s trans pod held 28 detainees. A Fusion investigation from that year found that, on any given day, approximately 75 transgender immigrants are in ICE custody. Most are not detained in trans-specific facilities, putting them in danger. Despite the relative safety of the trans pod, however, detainees there were kept in a small space with few windows and were only allowed to go outdoors to court appointments, Vice reported last year. “That would’ve been her only option,” Taj said. “And Miranda has an entire community of family and friends — and her legal counsel — in New York. To be transferred so far away is prohibitive.”
Miranda said she continued to be harassed after being transferred to Hudson, but was afraid to speak up because she didn’t want to be sent to California or placed in solitary confinement again.
In August 2017, an immigration judge released Miranda from ICE detention on bond. Though she’s happy to be back on Long Island and out of detention, Miranda says she’s still coping with what happened to her there. “Every day when I wake up, I feel like I’m not really here. Since the day I got assaulted, I can’t even have a partner. I can’t even touch another person,” she said. “I want to have my life back. I’m not a bad person; I’m just someone who was trying to run away because I wanted to save my life. Sometimes you feel so lonely, it feels like nobody in the world cares about you. Nobody cares about the way you feel. You feel so dead.”
Rosanna Santos, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who was arrested by ICE in 2013, told The Outline she was placed in solitary confinement for 11 days after reporting sexual comments made by a guard at the York County Prison in Pennsylvania, a municipal facility that holds ICE detainees along its general inmate population. Santos said the guard threatened her and another detainee with an “ass-fucking” while taking them to meet their attorneys. “There were no cameras, nothing to protect us there, not even a female guard,” she said.
Santos, who had been a victim of domestic violence, experienced anxiety and depression and began having nightmares while in solitary confinement. Although ICE investigated the incident, she said the guard was not reprimanded and continued to work in the prison. “It was traumatizing,” Santos said. “I felt like he could walk in any minute, since he was on duty. I felt like I had no protection.” With the help of her attorney, Santos was released from detention about a month after the incident and was eventually granted relief from deportation. More than four years later, however, she still struggles with what happened to her when she was detained.
“They know most sexual assault victims will not go to the media — or even file a complaint — out of fear of retaliation.”
In 2014, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began complying with the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), theoretically implementing a “zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse” in all immigrant detention facilities. The regulations are supposed to prevent retaliation against detainees who report sexual abuse, as well as streamline the investigation process.
But sexual abuse in immigration detention has seemingly increased since 2014, according to an April 2017 report by the California-based nonprofit Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC). The report states that there were anywhere between 1,016 and 2,573 complaints of sexual abuse at immigrant detention facilities between May 2014 — when PREA regulations were implemented — and July 2016, a number that is believed to be an underestimation. The report also found that the five immigrant detention facilities with the highest rates of sexual assault complaints are all privately run; three are operated by GEO Group and two by CoreCivic. Hutto didn’t make the top ten. County jails and other municipal facilities, like the ones where Miranda and Rosanna Santos were detained, similarly suffer from a lack of federal oversight. Four of the ten facilities with the most sexual abuse complaints were run by local municipalities.
To make matters worse, last summer ICE petitioned the National Archives and Record Administration to purge detainee records — including those documenting deaths, sexual assaults, and use of solitary confinement — a move that will make ICE’s abuses even harder to investigate. “When a federal agency wants to destroy records detailing civil and human rights abuses, it’s absolutely alarming,” Christina Fialho, the executive director of CIVIC, told The Outline. “Our immigrant prison system thrives in secrecy. ICE has an incentive to keep the public in the dark about what’s happening behind locked doors. They know most sexual assault victims will not go to the media — or even file a complaint — out of fear of retaliation.”
The first time I spoke with Laura Monterrosa, she told me she wanted nothing more than a “transparent investigation” into what happened to her. Three days earlier, 71 House Democrats signed a letter urging the DHS to better investigate sexual abuse in immigrant detention and withdraw ICE’s petition to destroy its records.
In the meantime, Monterrosa remains at Hutto, where she says she has experienced retaliation as a result of speaking out. She has described it as “hell.” “I don’t go to the dining area. I don’t go to any of the recreation areas because I’m so scared I’ll see [the guard who assaulted me] in the hallways,” she said when we spoke on January 4. By that point, she said she hadn’t been to the dining area in two weeks and had stopped eating altogether once she ran out of money on her commissary account. She said she was threatened with disciplinary action for refusing eat. A week after we last spoke, Monterrosa tried to kill herself by overdosing on pain medication that had been left in her room by Hutto medical staff. According to Grassroots Leadership, she ingested 51 prescription pills. The following day, she was finally told that the guard who assaulted her was being transferred to a different facility.
Andrea Sáenz, the supervisor of Brooklyn Defender Services’ immigration practice, said that ICE has full discretion over the release of asylum seekers like Monterrosa. “There are no requirements that ICE ever release anybody. We’ve had clients who have made suicide attempts, who were in severe medical distress. We’ve asked ICE to release them in discretion, and they’ve said no,” Sáenz told The Outline. “ICE can certainly decide to release somebody if they think they’re a giant legal liability, but they often don’t, even in these incredibly sympathetic circumstances.”
For the time being, Monterrosa’s fate lies in the federal government’s hands. The FBI will determine the outcome of her sexual assault allegations; ICE will determine whether she can be released from Hutto while her asylum case is heard; a judge will determine if she really fears returning to El Salvador, if her life is truly in danger, and if she will be deported or finally welcomed into the United States. “I want them to know we suffer here,” Monterrosa said. “And I want all the other women who are detained, and men, too, to know no one — absolutely no one — has the right to your body. No one has the right to humiliate you, and no one can take away your rights. We aren’t criminals. We’re just immigrants.”
Corrections: This article has been updated to reflect that the Obama administration began reforming immigrant detention in 2009. A previous version of this article stated that Laura Monterrosa did not pass her credible fear interview. Monterrosa did pass the interview but was not granted asylum, and is appealing that decision. Additionally, Grassroots Leadership does not have a weekly visitation program at Hutto; they visit detainees during Hutto’s general visitation hours.