For much of her childhood and adolescence, Maria Cortez suffered physical violence in Mexico. She fled only to be forced to relive her past trauma in immigration detention.
Cortez, a resident of Salinas, was detained at the Yuba County Jail for not having proper immigration papers. There, she was sexually abused, harassed and threatened. She filed a complaint, but rather than properly addressing the assault, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement transferred her to the West County Detention Facility, where a sheriff's deputy was recently arrested for allegedly raping two women.
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Her ordeal is not an isolated case in our vast immigration detention system. And this system with documented abuses has continued to grow unchecked, long before the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies.
The good news is that a groundbreaking piece of legislation aims to change that. Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington have introduced a bill — the Detention Oversight Not Expansion (DONE) Act — to prohibit the expansion of immigration detention and improve oversight.
California has already proven this measure works. Last year, our organization, Freedom for Immigrants (formerly CIVIC), worked with legislators to pass a 10-year moratorium on expanding county-run immigration detention facilities. We co-sponsored the Dignity Not Detention Act that has permanently stopped additional private immigration detention contracts.
The DONE Act builds on California's work. We cannot continue using taxpayer dollars to expand a system that lacks adequate oversight and is rife with inhumane conditions.
For example, the rate of sexual abuse in detention across the country is staggering. Data that we obtained through the Office of the Inspector General shows a widespread pattern of sexual harassment, assault and abuse against children, women, men and LGBTQ people in detention, as well as a lack of investigation into these reports.
The inspector general received at least 1,016 reports of sexual abuse in detention between May 2014 and July 2016, an average of more than one a day. But it investigated only 2.4 percent of these complaints.
This lack of investigations is unsurprising. The oversight budget for the Department of Homeland Security has not risen proportionately to increases in enforcement spending. ICE spending has grown 85 percent, from $3.3 billion since its inception in 2002 to $6.1 billion today. In fact, the U.S. government spends more on federal immigration enforcement than on all other criminal law enforcement agencies combined.
The DONE Act would change this by authorizing more than $55 million for DHS to conduct and report on its inspections, audits, and investigations of immigration detention. It also would require DHS to submit to Congress within one year a plan to decrease the number of immigration detention beds by 50 percent.
Rather than perpetuating abuse with our tax dollars, it's time we put a moratorium on immigration detention expansion. We did this in California, and we can get this done nationwide.