(this was originally sent to the California Human Rights List by Xiomara Castro)
By Teresa Mears
June 24, 2001
MIAMI - Shortly after the woman arrived at the immigration detention center in Miami, she said, the harassment began. First, the immigration officer told her how attractive she was. He telephoned her in her dorm.
The man, whose job included taking detainees to booths where they meet their attorneys, often called the woman to one of the booths. But instead of finding her attorney there, she found the officer. First, it was just talk, talk that included what an important man he was at the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Soon, she said, he began fondling her.
''It progressively got worse and worse,'' she said. ''He touched me. He hurt me. I was scared not only that he hurt me emotionally and mentally, but physically. He was physically hurting me as he tried to get his satisfaction.''
The woman was afraid to tell anyone. ''If you say anything about it, they try transferring you or you end up staying in INS custody longer,'' she said. She told her story to investigators only after the allegations were revealed by another detainee she had confided in.
The woman is one of at least 12 women who say officers at the INS's Krome Detention Center in Miami, one of the agency's most problem-plagued facilities, harassed them, sexually assaulted them, or promised favors in exchange for sex.
An investigation that began more than a year ago into the conduct of at least 15 INS officers has resulted in criminal charges against one officer. Lemar Smith, charged with four counts of rape of a transsexual asylum seeker from Mexico, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and awaits sentencing.
Officials of four agencies of the Justice Department say the investigation is continuing. ''These cases are very, very tough to work,'' said Judy Orihuela, an FBI spokeswoman.
Allegations of sexual abuse of detainees in INS custody have been made from time to time, but none on the scale of the Krome allegations. In January 2000, federal officials removed 250 INS and federal detainees from the Hillsborough County House of Corrections in Manchester, N.H., after charges of abuse.
Three jail officers were charged with aggravated felonious sexual assault. One was acquitted this month, and two others are awaiting trial. In March, the INS removed eight detainees from the New Hampshire State Prison for
Women after an allegation that one of the women engaged in sex with a guard.
At Krome, past investigations into alleged abuses, dating to the 1980s, have yielded few results. Lawyers for the immigrant women fear their clients will be deported and the problems swept under the rug. Several women say they have been threatened by INS officers for talking to investigators, and several potential witnesses have already been deported.
''There is evidence that this dates back for years, and the Justice Department has done little about it,'' said Wendy Young, director of government relations for the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, which released a report last year on abuse of women at Krome.
''Everyone realizes that Krome needs to be fixed,'' said Karen Kraushaar, a INS spokeswoman in Washington. ''Any abuse of any INS detainees is unacceptable. We did take the allegations seriously.'' INS officials in Miami did not respond to written questions.
All of the women at Krome, about 60 asylum seekers and about 30 green-card holders fighting deportation after criminal convictions, have been moved to the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Institute, a Miami-Dade County jail.
There, they complain, they are deprived of privileges they had at Krome, such as twice-weekly contact visits with family, and are subjected to all the rules of a maximum-security prison, though none is serving a criminal sentence. Some women have also been moved to jails in other states.
About nine officers were transferred from Krome to INS headquarters. But about a half-dozen officers who were the subject of allegations remain at the center.
Some of the women who cooperated with investigators have been released and allowed to remain in the United States while the investigation continues, but at least two remain behind bars in Miami and others have been shipped out of state.
The reports that the women have provided to their lawyers and to the women's commission are sometimes graphic. Sexual relationships between female detainees and INS officers are common at the center, they said.
One woman said an officer paid a detainee for a lap dance and for letting him feel her breasts. Women allegedly posed for photos wearing underwear brought in by officers, and then the photos were passed around the
center. In some cases, the women appeared to be willing sex partners, and in other cases they were desperate to get on the good side of anyone who could help their immigration cases.
Krome houses about 600 immigrants, both the newly arrived migrants seeking asylum and longtime legal permanent residents who are fighting deportation after being convicted of crimes.
Congress passed immigration laws in 1996 that significantly increased the number of immigrants kept in custody, made it harder for immigrants to gain asylum, and drastically increased the number of crimes for which immigrants
must be deported.
At least two women said they were threatened by their deportation officer after they spoke to investigators. He, too, is accused of sexually abusing at least one woman. In both cases, he allegedly told the women that he would
have them criminally prosecuted if they did not agree to be deported.
''I did not know what to do about the situation, and I was also afraid to tell anybody,'' one woman told her lawyer.
''Deportation officers are like God to you. They make you think that your destiny depends on them, so you do not try to look for trouble.''