Cheryl Little

(WOMENSENEWS)–Two women once on track to becoming U.S. citizens are now fighting deportation as a result of a complex interplay between immigration laws and criminal proceedings.

The women were convicted of non-violent crimes in Florida and, after they served their sentences, were picked up by immigration authorities to be held for deportation.

They were detained in an immigration detention center outside Miami, and there they allegedly were victimized by their guards. Now they are potential witnesses in an investigation into allegations of widespread sexual abuses of detainees by guards at that center.

The women claim they should be given official permission to stay until their allegations against the guards are resolved.

The case is being investigated by the Office of Public Integrity of the U.S. Department of Justice, and deportation efforts are currently on hold while the probe is underway, according to advocates for the women, but they seek legal assurances that the women can stay to testify against their alleged abusers. Advocates asked that the women’s names not be published for fear of reprisal against them or their relatives for speaking out.

The women, a Nicaraguan and a Canadian, are legal U.S. resident aliens, but they are being held in immigration service detention because they were convicted of crimes and therefore must be deported under the 1996 immigration law.

The Nicaraguan woman, 23, served 565 days for a burglary conviction. The Canadian, a 32-year-old mother of two, served a year for a drug conviction stemming from her residence at a friend’s house where drugs were sold.

Government Says U.S. Detention Center Not Fit for Women

As current law requires, the immigration agency rearrested them as soon as their sentences were complete. They were then placed in the Krome Service Processing Center on the outskirts of Miami, pending deportation.

The women alleged that they were regularly sexually abused, harassed and threatened by Immigration and Naturalization Service officers at the Krome Center.

However, they and about 100 other detained immigrant women have been moved to the maximum-security Miami-Dade Turner Gilford Knight Correctional Center because the Justice Department investigated conditions at Krome and then determined that conditions there were not appropriate for women.

"They were green card holders on track for U.S. citizenship, but because of their criminal backgrounds they’ll probably be deported no matter how minor the crime," said Wendy Young, director of government relations for the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. At any given time, more than 20,000 people, about 7 percent of them women, are held in U.S. detention centers, some of them asylum seekers, some of them criminals. The total annual detained population is over 200,000, Young added.

Women Wish to Stay to Testify Against Former Guards

The women argue that they are entitled to a specific type of visa under the Violence Against Women Act of 2000, permitting them to remain in the United States while they cooperate with authorities investigating a crime. The procedures for implementing this type of visa have been proposed but not yet approved.

"We hope the regulation process doesn’t take forever," said Leslye Orloff, director of the Immigrant Women Program at NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, the primary advocate for the legislation authorizing this type of visa. (Women’s Enews is a project of NOW Legal Defense.)

Orloff added that the immigration service issued regulations a year and a half after the Violence Against Women Act passed in 1992, which had provisions related to immigrant women, and she was concerned that the agency may take just as long to implement last year’s anti-violence law. She said she believed the agency should create an interim process to protect those at risk of deportation while the final regulations are being developed.

At Least 16 Women Have Complained About Abuse by 15 Guards

The two women are among about 16 women who have made at least 20 allegations against 15 Krome officers beginning in the spring of 2000, said Young of the refugee women’s commission.

One guard at Krome has been fired for sexual contact with a prisoner under his supervision, a misdemeanor. He pleaded guilty to that reduced charge, rather than to the original rape complaint.

"We are cautiously optimistic," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. "We’ve been assured that the investigation is not over, and it is being taken very seriously." 

"The most important thing to the women is that the INS officers be brought to justice," Little said in an interview. However, she added, that women have occasionally despaired and said, "I can’t take it anymore; let them deport me."

Since 1990, numerous allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse by Krome staff against detainees have been filed with the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General.

Lead Justice Department investigator Scott Dahl declined to comment and referred queries to the public affairs department. A spokeswoman, Casey Stavropoulos, declined to comment on the ongoing investigation, but said, "We take these allegations very seriously and take action immediately and refer it to the proper agency."

Numerous Complaints Attest to Pattern of Sexual Abuse

About 14 months ago, the Nicaraguan woman complained to immigration supervisors at Krome about sexual abuse by employees. She then was transferred to Hernando County Jail where she was placed with the regular prison population for a year. The Canadian woman was also transferred, but now they both are in a maximum-security facility.

Little alleged that the two women, from Nicaragua and Canada, and their families have been threatened with deportation and physical harm if they pursue their charges of sexual abuse against the officers.

The guards allegedly taunted the women by saying, "Nothing happened to us before, nothing will happen now." The guards also allegedly claimed their status provided them immunity from prosecution as well. "We’re wearing government uniforms and you’re wearing the detainee uniforms. Who will believe you?" Little claims the guards said. She added that the guards also warned that if the women complained, the guards could arrange to have members of their families harmed.

Immigration officials say that it’s easy to make accusations about sexual improprieties or crimes and that many have been made. But many officers also have been falsely accused, they said.

Immigration detention is the fastest growing prison program in the United States as a result of the emphasis on detention under the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, according to an October 2000 report by the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children. A significant percentage of detainees have not committed a crime but are seeking refugee protection.

Vaishalee Mishra is a journalist in New York.

For more information:

"Behind Locked Doors: Abuse of Refugee Women at the Krome Detention Center," Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children: (PDF, 215K) (HTML)

Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center: