Witness in sexual assault, harassment investigation at detention center deported: report

Witness in sexual assault, harassment investigation at detention center deported: report

Lawyers for a crucial witness in an ongoing investigation into reports of sexual misconduct at an El Paso, Texas immigrant detention center say she was deported by federal officials, according to a report from ProPublica and the Texas Tribune. 

The 35-year-old Mexican woman had been at the facility, overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), for roughly a year and spoke out last month about a “pattern and practice” of abuse. 

She gave the same account to law enforcement agencies, reporters and lawyers. She said several guards “forcibly” kissed her and abused other detainees, saying at least one guard touched her intimate parts.

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The woman said the ICE officials at the detention center systematically assaulted her and three other detainees in areas that were not visible to security cameras.

One guard allegedly offered to get her released “if she behaved.”

The publications first reported on her accusations last month and at least two other women have come forward with their own accounts of alleged assaults.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General opened an investigation and requested that ICE not deport the woman. Her lawyers said she was also interviewed extensively by the FBI.

After the report was made public, guards and inmates reportedly began intimidating her.

The woman took investigators on a tour of the facility and pointed out the blind spots, her lawyers said.

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Shortly after, a guard allegedly told her: “You need to watch out for yourself.”

In August, her lawyers filed an application with ICE requesting the agency not deport her until the investigation was complete. She could have also qualified for a legal status known as a U visa, which is intended for immigrant victims of crime.

The woman had told U.S. government officials that she feared persecution from drug cartels back in Mexico. She stated that she had been sexually assaulted by a high-ranking cartel member and threatened after notifying local police.

Last Friday, her attorneys petitioned to free the woman on supervised release and relocate her to an immigrant shelter since she felt unsafe in the facility overseen by ICE. 

Just three days after her habeas petition was filed in federal court, Homeland Security’s inspector general reversed its earlier decision, according to the report.

ICE was told that it could deport the woman to Mexico and investigators would interview her if necessary over the phone, her lawyers claim. She was sent back within hours late Monday.

ICE confirmed the woman’s deportation in a statement to The Hill, saying she had previously entered the U.S. illegally between 2004 and 2008. 

In April 2018, ICE was notified that she was at a New Mexico detention center facing drug charges. She ultimately pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and was sentenced to 18 months probation.

Immigration officials arrested her in Sept. 2019 and began processing her removal. Her deportation order was issued this July and the woman failed to file an appeal, according to the statement. 

The agency said it has zero tolerance for any form of sexual abuse or assault against individuals in the agency’s custody and takes the woman’s allegations “extremely seriously.” 

The government “allowed their most powerful witness to be deported,” her lawyer, Linda Corchado, told the publications. “How can we possibly take this investigation seriously now or ever pretend that it ever was from the outset?”

Jeanette Harper, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s El Paso office, told the outlets that the agency’s policy prevents it from commenting on an ongoing investigation. 

Harper said the woman’s allegations are now being investigated by the Justice Department’s inspector general, which oversees accusations of civil rights abuses.

The El Paso allegations are not isolated. According to the ProPublica report, nearly 15,000 allegations of sexual and physical abuse were levied against ICE between 2010 and 2016.

In 2018 alone, ICE reported 374 accusations of sexual assault, including 48 substantiated cases and 29 still under investigation.

Updated 2:19 p.m.