“He would tell me that if immigration ever found out, my son and I would be deported instantly.”
A young Honduran woman was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a staff member at Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania. The then 19-year-old Honduran woman, E.D., brought her three-year-old son with her to the ICE center while awaiting a decision on her asylum application.
Women’s Law Project, as well as partner organizations, filed an amicus curiae brief to decide whether staff at the center who knew about the abuse but failed to intervene will be held accountable. Assailant Daniel Sharkey allegedly coerced and threatened E.D. with possible deportation while onlookers did nothing except make jokes, according to the record in the case, E.D. v. Sharkey.
E.D. told the New York Times: “I didn’t know how to refuse because he told me that I was going to be deported. I was at a jail and he was a migration officer. It’s like they order you to do something, and you have to do it.”
E.D. is suing Berks County (a representative of the center for ICE) and staff for failing to protect her although they knew about the abuse. The defendants, however, argue that since the assailant used threats and coercion rather than physical force, and because E.D. is an immigration detainee and not a prisoner, they should not be held liable.
The victim continued in her statement: “Whenever I denied his demands, he’d get very angry and humiliated me. He would tell me that if immigration ever found out, my son and I would be deported instantly, which is why I obeyed.”
Another detainee, a seven-year-old girl who was also a witness in the case, said that after seeing Sharkey touching E.D. in a bathroom stall, she was too afraid to even go to the bathroom and had trouble sleeping.
At first, the assailant insisted that his “relationship” with the detainee was consensual. But after pleading guilty to institutional sexual assault, Sharkey was sentenced to six to 23 months in prison. However, he allegedly served only five months in prison, which was shorter than the time that E.D. was at the center.
Margaret Zhang, Women’s Law Project’s staff attorney and co-author of the brief, told WLP: “This case is about making sure that detention facilities and their staff are held accountable for sexual abuse that occurs on their watch. The inherent power inequities in prisons and other detention facilities create situations that are ripe for sexual abuse. Incarcerated and detained persons still have rights. It is absolutely essential to reinforce and clarify legal protections for people who have been sexually abused while detained or incarcerated.”
In 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act to protect prisoners across the U.S. against sexual assault. In 2014, the Department of Homeland Security took measures to implement PREA standards to help protect immigrants in detention facilities. Yet, sexual assault and other violent crimes are still happening in detention centers.
Unfortunately, cases like E.D.’s are not isolated, according to several reports. Every day, detained immigrants are at risk for sexual assault and violence. The reports all recommend stronger protection standards and accountability measures in immigration detention.