Undocumented Abuse: The Cruel and Usual Detention of America’s Poorest Immigrants

Why are would-be Americans often treated worse in the U.S. than hostile detainees are in Guantanamo?

A United States border patrol agent catches an illegal immigrant crossing from Mexico to the U.S. in San Ysidro

There’s a fine line between protecting our borders and creating a regimented system of abuse. Actually, strike that. The line separating security and abuse is clearly demarcated, and too often crossed. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

The video couldn’t be clearer. Anastacio Hernandez Rojas, a 42-year-old undocumented worker and father of five, writhes handcuffed on the ground, screaming and begging for his life as border patrol agents beat and taser him into unconsciousness. Onlookers scream at officers, “He’s not even resisting!” Still, the beating continues.

Rojas later died from the injuries he sustained.

The year was 2010, and Rojas and his brother were attempting to cross from Baja California, Mexico, to San Diego, California—a city that had been their home for a decade. No agents were charged in the death.

MORE: 7 Myths That Make the Immigration Debate a Sticky Mess

Plenty of Americans who have the proper ID papers in place are abused by law enforcement. Just ask the Occupy movement. But it seems no group faces more extreme extralegal threats from the criminal justice system than undocumented immigrants.

That undocumented immigrants fear and have little trust in American law enforcement is nothing new. Undocumented parents of children at Los Angeles’s Miramonte Elementary School say they long suspected their children had been sexually abused by a teacher—but failed to report their concerns to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department for fear their families would be deported.

Beyond the issue of deportation, a double set of legal standards is increasingly emerging for undocumented immigrants—standards that are often below those we grant to enemy combatants in a time of war.

Recently instituted prison rape deterrent standards, dubbed Prison Rape Elimination Act or PREA, implemented by the U.S. Department of Justice, for instance, explicitly do not apply to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities—much to the chagrin of custody safety advocates across the country.

Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano argued that ICE should be permitted to create its own set of standards—which, once developed proved woefully inadequate.

“Most alarming is a caveat that the sexual abuse prevention standards do not apply to facilities that hold detainees for 72 hours or less,” Just Detention International Executive Director, Lovisa Stannow wrote of Napolitano’s plan. “Such a misguided limitation will place highly vulnerable detainees at extreme risk for abuse, such as gay and transgender people who tend to be disproportionately targeted for abuse very soon after entering a facility.”

The exemption of immigration facilities from PREA standards is particularly shocking, given that even the Defense Department’s notorious Guantanamo Bay detention facility for terrorism suspects is being considered for coverage under PREA.

In Maricopa County, Arizona, meanwhile, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit, jails under the control of notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio, routinely abuse and racially taunt undocumented immigrants.

From the lawsuit:

MCSO jail employees frequently refer to Latinos as “wetbacks,” “Mexican bitches,” and “stupid Mexicans.” MCSO supervisors involved in immigration enforcement have expressed anti-Latino bias, in one instance widely distributing an email that included a photograph of a Chihuahua dog dressed in swimming gear with the caption “A Rare Photo of a Mexican Navy Seal.” MCSO and Arpaio’s words and actions set the tone and create a culture of bias that contributes to unlawful actions.

This is not to say that crossing the American border illegally should be without consequence. Undocumented immigrants should not be immune to censure for their actions—particularly if they break further laws once inside the United States.

Death, rape and torture, however, are not acceptable punishments for any crime, let alone a non-violent one.

“As a nation, we have a responsibility to protect everyone in detention from sexual abuse,” Chris Daley, deputy executive director of Just Detention, tells TakePart. “The crisis of sexual abuse in immigration detention facilities must be stopped. President Obama took a first step toward this in May by recognizing that PREA applies to all federal detention facilities. If the forthcoming regulations from the Department of Homeland Security are strong, they will be a valuable tool in protecting the hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children detained by DHS every year.”

Why are America’s undocumented immigrants being treated like hostile forces? Leave your analysis in COMMENTS.

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