A man detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was told by an officer at the Bristol County House of Corrections in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, that he would “bet for him in a fight against another detainee.” When the man refused to engage in fights for the entertainment of officials and tried to file a complaint, the officer told him, “No one will believe baboon complaints.”
The detained man was then subjected to retaliation and further humiliation. Officers denied him hygiene products and his food was thrown away. They continued to refer to him as a “baboon” and “gorilla,” and encouraged others to “rattle his cage.”
“This type of abuse motivated by hate and bias has been on the rise under the Trump administration, but the federal government is not adequately tracking or combating it.”
In addition to physical and sexual assault, immigrants in detention are often subjected to bigoted remarks by facility personnel. The incident at Bristol County House of Corrections is just one of at least 800 complaints of abuse motivated by hate in 34 immigration detention facilities that have been documented since President Donald Trump took office, according to a new report from Freedom for Immigrants. The accounts of abuse were gathered by the nonprofit through visits, phone calls, and letters with people in immigration detention, as well as reported complaints obtained from the Department of Homeland Security.
“Some of these documented incidents of abuse are clearly motivated by hate, such as when an officer called someone a ‘dog’ and told them to ‘go fetch your food’ at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange, California,” the report said. “This type of abuse motivated by hate and bias has been on the rise under the Trump administration, but the federal government is not adequately tracking or combating it.”
At Pinal County Jail in Florence, Arizona, a guard told a man to “look in the mirror to see King Kong.” Another immigrant was denied pain medication and an X-ray at Otay Detention Facility in San Diego, California, because of the prison’s medical staff dislike of “illegals [that] only come to the US to steal jobs from white people.”
Many of the immigrants in detention avoid submitting complaints out of fear of retaliation. If they did, chances are that the complaint would go unanswered or uninvestigated, said Liz Martinez, director of advocacy and strategic communications at Freedom for Immigrants. The organization previously filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the DHS for complaints of incidents relating to hate crimes in immigration detention centers between 2010 and 2017. The response to the FOIA request listed only 86 reported complaints — indicating that the agency does not properly track instances of hate-motivated abuse, Martinez said. (ICE did not respond to a request for comment about this story.)
Dehumanizing conditions at immigration detention facilities were rife under President Barack Obama’s administration, but advocacy groups say that the Trump administration’s racist rhetoric emboldened ICE officers and other immigration detention officials to respond to the those in their custody with mounting disdain, leading to a rise in reported incidents. Trump infamously launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists, criminals, and drug dealers, and more recently referred to immigrants as “animals” and used the word “infest” to describe migrants arriving in the United States.
“As the report showed, variations of the word ‘monkey,’ ‘baboon,’ and ‘King Kong’ — all kinds of animals — have been used as abuse in detention, where there’s no real consequence or oversight over those who carry out abuse,” Martinez said. “A lot of what’s happening is hidden from public view, and it’s intensified under this administration. Even though it was happening under Obama, it’s something that under Trump we’ve seen intensify and increase.”
The Freedom for Immigrants report tied the Trump administration’s rhetoric to its policies: “Dehumanizing words go hand in hand with dehumanizing policies,” the report said. Those dehumanizing Trump policies exploded into the national conversation this spring and summer. Between early May, when the Trump administration announced its “zero tolerance” border policy, and the executive order last week that halted future separations by attempting to implement whole family detention, at least 2,342 children were taken from their parents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The policy, which followed Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s order to prosecute everyone crossing the border without authorization, stoked mass outrage in recent weeks and has been condemned by both Democrats and Republicans. Last week’s executive order did not create a system to reunite the thousands of children already taken from their parents.
As The Intercept reported on Tuesday, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, in an email to staff on Friday night, outlined the administration’s plan to radically expand family detention and overturn the current settlement prohibiting the extended detention of immigrant children. The administration is arguing that it should be allowed to detain children with their parents for as long as it takes to work out their immigration cases.
“This is the time to realize what happens inside these facilities, what happens under ICE custody, is brutal on many different levels.”
Martinez said it’s critical for whistleblowers expose the abuse and forms of mistreatment happening at the hands of the government. “We know that there’s people onboard within these agencies, such as ICE and CBP” — U.S. Customs and Border Protection — “even guards or staff members contracted by the government that probably don’t agree with what they’re seeing inside,” she said. “So we hope that they can come forward and help us shine a light on this abusive system.”
The Freedom for Immigrants report follows many media accounts of abuses in immigration detention. In April, The Intercept reported on more than 1,000 complaints about sexual abuse in immigration detention obtained through public records requests. Under the Trump administration, people in immigration detention suffered abuses — including dozens of hours in shackles — during a failed deportation flight to Somalia. In March, a report by a coalition of immigrant rights advocates detailed a harrowing pattern of alleged abuse against African detainees at a private detention facility, including threats, taunts, racial slurs, and sexual abuse. In June, The Intercept reported that Muslim detainees at an immigration detention facility were having obstacles erected to performing religious rituals, including fasting for Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.
As reports of abuse continue to trickle out, attention on the Trump administration’s child separation policies sparked protests across the nation, including those targeted against top administration officials, actions Martinez said played an important role on accountability for the administration’s detention policies. “This is the time to do that,” she said. “This is the time to realize what happens inside these facilities, what happens under ICE custody, is brutal on many different levels.”