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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Attorneys representing women being held at a South Texas immigration lockup said Thursday they've filed a federal complaint alleging sexual abuse and harassment by at least three guards and facility staff members.
Detainees, whose children were staying with them at the 500-plus-bed immigration facility in Karnes City, have told lawyers with two civil-rights organizations and a San Antonio-based law firm that some women were removed from their cells at night to have sex with guards and other support personnel. There were also allegations that detainees were promised money or help with their pending legal cases in exchange for sexual favors, and also were kissed and fondled in front of other women and children.
Attorneys for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; the Immigration Rights and Civil Rights Clinics at the University of Texas Law School; and the Javier N. Maldonado law firm sent a complaint to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Department of Homeland Security officials Tuesday.
"At least three Karnes Center employees are suspected as having engaged in this conduct," MALDEF attorney Marisa Bono wrote in the complaint, which was announced Thursday.
In addition, Bono told The Associated Press that at least two detainees who had witnessed incidents detailed them in reports to the facility's staff. She said she wasn't sure whether those reports had been seen by federal officials or only GEO Group, the private company that runs the facility about 50 miles southeast of San Antonio.
Adelina Pruneda, a spokeswoman for ICE and DHS in San Antonio, did not address the specific accusations in a statement Thursday, but said federal officials remain "committed to ensuring all individuals in our custody are housed and treated in a safe, secure and humane manner."
"ICE has a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse or assault and our facilities are maintained in accordance with applicable laws and policies," Pruneda said. "Accusations of alleged unlawful conduct are investigated thoroughly and if substantiated, appropriate action is taken."
Amid the recent surge of immigrants pouring into the United States, the all-male Karnes City facility was converted Aug. 1 into one that would temporarily house women and their children.
Similar allegations have been made previously, according to Gillian Christensen, an ICE spokesman in Washington, D.C. But she said that U.S. Customs and Border Protection said those cases "were reviewed by U.S. Attorneys offices and declined for prosecution."
The Karnes City site is the nation's third family immigration lockup, along with centers in New Mexico and Pennsylvania. ICE is also in discussions to build another family detention facility in Dilley, southwest of San Antonio, that could eventually house as many as 2,500 people.
Bono said the attorneys waited until Thursday to make the allegations public to allow federal authorities time to take appropriate action.
"We're concerned about the safety of the women who reported and the women who are victims. We would like assurances that they aren't going to be retaliated against," Bono said. "We also want to know what is being done."
Associated Press writer Alicia Caldwell in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.