Guards and staff have allegedly been sexually abusing mothers at a controversial immigration detention center for families in Texas that opened just two months ago, according to a complaint to the Department of Homeland Security filed by several advocacy groups this week.
The complaint filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and attorneys from the University of Texas School of Law alleges "substantial, ongoing sexual abuse" at the Karnes County Civil Detention Center in Karnes City, Texas.
Women at the 500-plus bed center, which opened in August, told attorneys that staff have been removing mothers from their cells at night to engage in sexual acts, promising immigration help in exchange for sexual favors, and groping women in front of children, according to the complaint.
"Guards using their respective positions of power to abuse vulnerable, traumatized women all over again is not only despicable, it's against the law," said Marisa Bono, staff attorney with MALDEF. "This is exactly why the federal government should not be in the business of detaining families."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement would not comment on the sexual claims, citing an ongoing investigation. But a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, said the agency takes such allegations seriously.
"ICE has a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse or assault," said Nina Pruneda of DHS/ICE public affairs in an email. "Accusations of alleged unlawful conduct are investigated thoroughly and if substantiated, appropriate action is taken."
Karnes is run by a private firm, the Geo Group. In a statement to NBC News, GEO said it refuted the allegations. "The Center provides high quality care, and our company strongly denies any allegations to the contrary," wrote the company, which noted that it has been transparent and allowed advocates, federal and local officials, and the public to visit Karnes facility since it began housing families in August.
ICE opened Karnes and another family detention facility in Artesia, New Mexico this summer after a nearly 500 percent spike in the number of families crossing the border last fiscal year, largely from coming from Central America.
The opening of the two facilities, which together have almost 1,100 beds, represented a sharp turnabout in DHS policy. The agency had almost entirely stopped the practice in 2009 when it shuttered a Texas facility where, according to a lawsuit, children were kept in harsh, prison-like conditions.
But now the system looks poised to grow even larger. In late September DHS announced it would open another facility in Dilley, Texas that could eventually detain 2,400 immigrant parents and children. The three facilities, along with a small, longstanding center in Pennsylvania would create the largest family detention system the country has ever had.
"The government has no business detaining vulnerable mothers and children that it cannot protect from this type of abuse," said Barbara Hines of the University of Texas Immigration Clinic, which filed the complaint this week.
But ICE has said it can both detain families and keep them safe.
"ICE remains committed to ensuring all individuals in our custody are housed and treated in a safe, secure and humane manner," said Pruneda.