As we mark the second anniversary of the #MeToo movement, our country continues to grapple with systemic issues around sexual violence. But there has been virtual silence around sexual violence committed against immigrant women and girls at the hands of government officials. Now a case before the Supreme Court could make it even harder to hold federal law enforcement agents accountable for these atrocities.
This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case, Hernandez v. Mesa, brought by the family of a Mexican teenager murdered by a Border Patrol officer. If the Court issues a decision in favor of the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer, it could effectively prevent anyone from suing federal law enforcement officers who violate their constitutional rights, including immigrant women and girls who are sexually assaulted by CBP or ICE officers.
That would be devastating for women like Aura, who fled horrific life-threatening domestic violence in Guatemala to come to the United States with her nephew. Instead of allowing her to claim asylum, a border patrol agent cursed at her, leered at her, and made derogatory comments about her breasts. This federal agent then threatened not to release her nephew from custody unless she met with him privately. Then, in private, he raped her.
Aura is not alone. Thousands of other immigrant women and girls are assaulted by Customs and Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers each year. The organization Freedom of Immigrants discovered that more than 10,000 complaints of sexual assault or physical abuse were filed against CBP officers between 2010 and 2016. Over the same period, there were almost 15,000 complaints against ICE officials.
Undocumented children are especially vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse, where immigrant youth shelters run by HHS have been described as a “gold mine” for predators. One report detailed that a quarter of these children reported facing sexual assault, or another kind of physical abuse, from CBP officials.
Women, girls and other immigrants often come to the United States to flee sexual violence in their home countries. When they arrive, however, too few of these survivors find protection. All of them now instead face a harsh and shifting set of policies intended to end asylum. And many also face more sexual violence—violence that is often committed by federal law enforcement officers.
But most federal officials who commit sexual violence against immigrants face no consequences. Of the more than 30,000 complaints of abuse over six years, less than one percent were investigated. Fewer still resulted in any disciplinary action.
Immigrants who are sexually assaulted also face enormous barriers to bringing lawsuits against abusive federal officers. Many immigrants have limited resources, face the prospect of inhumane detention conditions, and fear retaliation if they question the actions of officials who can help or hinder their asylum claims.
Immigrants have little recourse when it comes to seeking justice for crimes committed by CBP agents. By law, right now no one can sue the federal government itself for civil rights violations committed by its agents or officials. And although survivors can seek to sue the officials themselves for violating their constitutional rights, the Supreme Court recently has called such suits “disfavored.”
#MeToo has demonstrated the importance of strengthening laws and policies to address sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. Civil rights lawsuits are a critical tool in achieving and preserving that accountability. The Supreme Court should use this moment of heightened consciousness to recognize the importance of accountability.
Immigrant women and girls deserve justice and accountability when they are subjected to sexual violence. It makes no sense that employers, but not government officials, face consequences for sexual violence. To undermine what is often the only option survivors have to hold federal officials accountable is unthinkable. After all, sexual assault is unacceptable at the border just as it is in the workplace. No uniform should grant impunity from inflicting such harm.