San Diego

Advocacy Group: If You're Abused in Immigration Detention, the Government Doesn't Care

Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) reports Otay Mesa Detention Center ranks in the top five facilities in the United States related to complaints of sexual and physical assault

Yordy Cancino moved to California as a child.

He graduated at the top of his high school class at Jackie Robinson High School in Los Angeles and was accepted to numerous colleges, including UCLA and UC Santa Cruz.

“My ultimate dream is to be a fashion designer,” he said with a smile.

Cancino said he couldn't afford to pay for college and as an undocumented immigrant, couldn’t get financial aid. “They didn't have funding for undocumented students. Unfortunately, when I graduated in 2011, DACA wasn’t present.”

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a United States immigration policy founded in June 2012. DACA allows certain undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit.  

Read more about DACA here.

Cancino said without another option to pay for college, he returned to Mexico.

“The risks I knew,” he said. “I wasn't going to be able to come back, it’s like me leaving my family behind, for me fulfill my dream.”

After two years studying in Mexico City, Cancino said he wanted to return to California.

In 2014, he turned himself in at the Otay Mesa border, seeking asylum, swearing under penalty of law that he’d been beaten and stalked in Mexico. He said he was targeted because he was gay.

Cancino was held at the Otay Mesa  Detention Center, a Department of Homeland Security and ICE facility managed by a private company, CoreCivic.

Cancino said he never thought he'd be harassed by the guard who was supposed to uphold order. He said that guard gave him pet names and ridiculed his sexuality.

“He was always looking at me, so I didn't even feel comfortable taking a shower,” he said. “He was always approaching me in different ways I shouldn't be approached.  As an officer, he should have been taking care of me, he wasn't taking care of me.”

According to Cancino, he complained to the guard's supervisor but his complaints were not taken seriously or documented correctly.

“I think by not investigating each allegation, each complaint of sexual assault our government is sending a message that sexual assault of immigrants will be tolerated,” said Christina Fialho, co-founder of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC). “These are thousands of human beings who are being sexually assaulted, raped, either because the government has been unwilling or unable to protect  them or because the government has been the perpetrator of these sexual assaults.”

According to CIVIC, the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General Received 1,016 complaints related to sexual abuse or assault on detainees, from May 2014 to July 2016. Details on individual cases were not disclosed, including whether the alleged perpetrators were corrections officers, or detainees themselves.

Fialho said the number of complaints is likely much higher, noting the Inspector General reported more than 33,000 allegations of a broader range of abuse from January 2010 to July 2016, including 702 complaints of coerced sexual contact, 714 complaints of physical or sexual abuse and 589 complaints of sexual harassment. Fialho said the majority of those complaints were filed against ICE and the inspector general investigated less than "1 percent" of those complaints.

“In California, there were 4,500 complaints lodged with the Inspector General, but only 45, a very small number, were investigated by OIG,” she said.  “With the current climate under President Trump, it is very concerning. He is planning on expanding immigration detention system by 30,000 on any given day. Right now, there are about 40,000 people in immigration detention on any given day.”

On April 11, CIVIC sent a letter to homeland security demanding a thorough investigation of all complaints, including Cancino's.

Read the letter here. 

The group said it has not received a response.

A spokeswoman with DHS, Gillian M. Christensen, told NBC 7 Investigates the department will review the letter "to determine if further action or recommendations are warranted." Christensen also noted the allegations represent a tiny percentage of the more than 2 million admissions to ICE detention facilities in the six-year period covered in the report and the agency has a "zero-tolerance policy" related to sexual abuse.

Recalling his time in custody, Cancino said, “I suffered a lot. I would cry. It was a nightmare.  Mentally and physically, my family didn't know what was going on with me. You are not just a human to them you are an object .”

He spent three months at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, which CIVIC ranks the 5th highest for sexual abuse complaints, out of 211 ICE Immigration detention facilities.

Cancino now has a 5-year work visa, but his permanent status is still in question.

He knows speaking out is risky, but he said he won't stay silent, “You have to have some type of respect.”

Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for ICE in San Diego would not provide an interview to NBC 7 Investigates for this story. Repeated emails and phone calls to CoreCivic, the company that manages the Otay Mesa facility, were not returned.

Fialho said she wants Congress to create a bipartisan commission to investigate sexual assault complaints in ICE immigration facilities. Her group also wants the Department of Homeland Security to publish details about all documented sexual assaults and investigations.

If that's not done, Fialho said her group may sue DHS, to force changes.

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