While detained at Miami’s Krome detention center, Andres Domingo was sexually assaulted multiple times.
An investigation by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) corroborated Domingo’s claims and his legal team said this automatically made the 25-year-old Guatemalan native eligible for a U-visa, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services regulation. Given to victims of sex crimes or any crime that leads to mental and psychological suffering or abuse, the U non-immigrant status allows victims to remain in the US. Yet, Domingo’s last request for the visa was denied on 25 August.
Domingo’s experience underscores the concerns surrounding the rising and systemic mistreatment of detainees in US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) detention centers. It also raises questions about the effectiveness of the system and the protections it offers to vulnerable individuals in its custody.
On 26 January, Domingo reported he was sexually assaulted three separate times by three different detainees at Krome that month.
In the series of assaults, Domingo said he experienced unwanted sexual advances and harassment by fellow detainees. During the first incident, one detainee allegedly groped and kissed him in the bathroom in the morning; later that night, the same detainee masturbated beside him in their shared cell that holds about 80 detainees. In the second assault, a detainee allegedly followed him to the bathroom and attempted to have sex with him, touched his penis, then followed him to his bed where he laid next to Domingo and groped his butt. Domingo resisted and threatened to report him, with an eyewitness, Eriberto Reyes, confirming Domingo’s version. In the third assault, while showering, Domingo was allegedly targeted again when another detainee attempted to engage in sexual activity. As Domingo fought back, the assailant purportedly scraped his penis with the protruding end of a battery, an account corroborated by two other detainees, Kelvin and Eriberto Reyes.
Domingo said he did not immediately report the incidents because he was scared and ashamed.
Some of “the detainees have always made fun of me because I would not want to get out of the bed”, he said. “The detainees would say I was a maricón [derogatory Spanish term to call someone homosexual].”
When Domingo finally reported his assaults, he was temporarily moved to another building. He alleged that one of the Ice captains, whom he only referenced as Captain Lopez and had allegedly witnessed one of the attacks, forced him to write a statement that no one had sexually assaulted him.
“I was coerced into signing a document that said I was not forced to have sex,” Domingo said. “I felt that those coming to speak to me – [the Ice officials] – were bullying me and pushing me to be done with the case … I feel that the guards and the captain did not take my report seriously because they were making fun of me, they were calling me ‘motherfucker’”.
Two months after he reported the three incidents at Krome, on 3 March, DHS investigated, according to the escalation procedure for such cases. Their findings, reviewed by the Guardian, claimed Domingo’s report of sexual assaults was “substantiated”.
Kenia Garcia, Domingo’s lawyer, quickly filed for the U-visa, following the requirements. “To apply for the U-visa itself with USCIS [US Citizenship and Immigration Services], you have to have a certification,” she said, “which is usually from the investigative unit that says, number one: the person was a victim of the crime. And number two: the person cooperated with law enforcement, because that’s the purpose of the U-visa.”
Garcia said the issue Domingo now faces with receiving the U-visa is that Ice doesn’t investigate sex crimes for the purposes of issuing a U-visa; only Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), a separate investigative unit within Ice, can review such cases. HSI has yet to do this, Garcia said, because HSI officials allege that the sexual assault must be reported to local law enforcement – in this case, in Miami-Dade – by Ice or the office of professional responsibility (OPR) before HSI can investigate. Ice and OPR continue to point the finger at HSI, saying they are the ones to take action.
Representatives from Ice did not return the Guardian’s request for comment before publication.
“These cases continue to happen for the same reason that over 200 immigrants have died in Ice custody since 2003,” Priyanka Bhatta, a senior attorney with Project South, a non-profit advancing racial justice. “This is a rogue agency with a proven track record of not being able to care for the people in its custody. This is further proven by the US Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations hearing which concluded that Ice did not have appropriate vetting procedures.”
As the matter continues to be drawn out, Domingo said he’s in fear for his life. Following the sexual assaults, he was moved to Broward Transitional Center. There, he said he was attacked by another detainee who “beat me in the chest and tried to cut me with a cutter after a dispute for the TV channel I was watching”. He was hospitalized twice at the Fort Lauderdale Behavioral Health Center. The first time, for 10 days, was due to his deteriorating mental health condition and chest pains. The second time was for 20 days – a result of a blood infection he received from when the Krome detainee scraped his penis.
Domingo said the transfers have made it difficult for his lawyers to keep up with his whereabouts, jeopardizing his court hearings. He said his cases are now called last because Ice officials told him it’s for his protection – so he’s never in the same room as his Krome attackers.
“I just feel that I continue to be punished for the criminal acts of someone else when I am the victim,” Domingo said. “Since I was moved to another detention center, Ice has failed to take me to my scheduled court hearings twice, and my case has been delayed as a result.”
This shuffling act is precisely how the system protects itself “while silencing and retaliating against those who came forward to make the complaints”, said Amanda Diaz, a senior national hotline manager at Freedom for Immigrants (FFI). “The immigration detention system is designed to hinder accountability, and the nature of detention makes it difficult to investigate and seek remedy. Some of these factors include Ice’s constant transferring of people to different detention centers without warning, communication and visitation barriers, and language access failures, to name a few.”
Domingo’s case is hardly an outlier. Freedom for Immigrants’ national immigration detention hotline has received thousands of calls from detainees reporting abuse and mistreatment while in Ice detention. Since January 2020, the non-profit group dedicated to abolishing immigration detention has received 307 reports of sexual abuse or harassment from 153 unique individuals. Most callers are from Mexico, El Salvador, Jamaica, Guatemala and Haiti. This year alone, they’ve received 33 reports of sexual abuse or harassment from 20 unique individuals. Most complaints were from El Salvador, Mexico, Colombia and Jamaica natives.
Further data from FFI show that Ice has been found to violate Prison Rape Elimination Act (Prea) law routinely. Of the cases documented, the DHS office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) investigates only a fraction of these cases. Less than one in four complaints made to the CRCL are investigated. Between 2010 and 2016, DHS recorded at least 33,000 instances of physical abuse and sexual assault. These incidents were primarily committed at ICE and Customs and Border Protection facilities. Less than 1% of these complaints were investigated, according to federal data obtained by FFI in 2017. More recent government records obtained by Futuro Media and NPR have further displayed that these staggering failures of accountability and prevention have persisted.
“These numbers are only the tip of the iceberg,” Diaz said. “Because Ice does not have robust reporting mechanisms in place, and because the agency routinely violates Prea laws, the vast majority of cases go unreported due to Ice’s culture of intimidation, retaliation and secrecy … People who endure this abuse have little to no path to justice or accountability, and this is by design. Immigration detention is an inherently abusive, secretive and isolating experience.”
Domingo fled his home country to the US on two separate occasions.
He first fled Guatemala in July 2014 after the Mara 18, one of the largest gangs in Central America, attempted to recruit him. Members attacked Domingo when he refused to join them. During his asylum interview obtained by the Guardian, Domingo said he couldn’t go to the police because law enforcement rarely intervenes in gang recruitment efforts. He feared reporting it would compel the Mara 18 to have him killed. He was deported in January 2020. His second and last entry attempt was on 10 February 2020, following a second attack by another Mara gang member who discovered Domingo had returned.
“I don’t believe in conspiracy theories,” Garcia, Domingo’s lawyer, said, “but this certainly feels like one – [it’s] that extreme and unusual … I have begged for my client to have another review so that they may independently corroborate the facts as my client [reported]. They just don’t seem to be making it onto the paper of the interviewer or investigator.”
Domingo said all he wants now is justice and a chance at his American dream: to start a carpentry and freight business. He dreams of buying a home and car for his family in Fort Myers, Florida – his partner of six years, whom he met in the US, and three children – and seeing them as a free man.
“I would like for people to pay for what they have done to me,” he said. “I would like for them to be persecuted for the sexual abuse of which I was a victim, as the law says they should. I would like for immigration to [follow] their rules and to help me in the U-visa process because I have been a victim of a crime. I would like to be free, to feel safe again, and to continue with my immigration case outside of detention.”