Reported sex abuse of migrant children in U.S. custody highlights inadequacies in immigration system

March 18, 2019

In late February, information emerged proving that thousands of immigrant children have reported incidents of sexual abuse during their time in U.S. custody since 2015. During a Congress Judiciary Committee hearing on Donald Trump’s family separation policy, Florida Representative Ted Deutch revealed documents from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) demonstrating that there were a total of 4,556 reports of sexually inappropriate behavior towards minors between October 2014 and July 2018 (NPR). Of these years, the fiscal year 2018 saw the highest number of reports at 1,728 (HHS).

The incidents detailed in these documents range from cases of romantic relationships between youth care workers and minors in custody, to sexual assault between underaged detainees, to rape by foster parents. The degree of severity among these cases varies greatly, with only 1,300 of them ultimately considered serious enough to be investigated by the FBI (NPR). Additionally, a minority of the reports implicated youth care workers in the facilities; though there were at least 178 cases reported to the Department of Justice to involve adult care workers, it appears that a majority of the sexual abuse was committed by fellow minors in custody (HHS).

The reports unveiled by Representative Deutch illustrate a culture of abuse and neglect in immigrant detention facilities designed for children, and the government’s inability to provide the care necessary for an ever-increasing number of minors in U.S. custody. These HHS reports only included the 4,556 incidents of sexual abuse that had been reported since they started collecting this data in 2014. This means that, though the reports are relatively recent, the problem is in no way a new one, and these statistics likely only shed a light onto a small portion of the abuse that has been tolerated in child immigrant detention facilities in recent decades.

During the same Judiciary Committee hearing, Rep. Deutch (D-FL) used these data as ammunition in criticizing the Trump administration’s immigration policy, arguing that these reports of abuse—which have increased since Trump came into power in 2016—demonstrate the administration’s incapacity to keep these migrant children safe while in detention (Miami Herald). The immigrant children concerned in these reports are all officially regarded as unaccompanied migrant children; this term refers to anyone under the age of 18 who arrived at the U.S. border alone, with a relative other than their parent/guardian, or who was separated from their parents upon arrival.

While these reports on their own indicate profound flaws in the U.S. government’s system of immigrant detention, they only begin to scratch the surface of unveiling the problematic way that the government treats immigrants, and especially immigrant children. United States immigration policy has consistently dominated national headlines since President Trump’s 2016 inauguration, and it has been the subject of immense criticism as scandals continue to arise which highlight the flaws inherent in the current policy approach. A considerable number of these scandals, and those which have appealed immensely to the emotions of U.S. citizens and politicians, have concerned the treatment of immigrant children.

One of the most shocking elements of the Trump administration’s position towards immigration, the details of which monopolized national and international media throughout early 2018, was the policy of separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border. The practice of family separation began in the spring of 2018 as an accessory to Trump’s ‘Zero-Tolerance’ immigration policy, which entailed detaining and prosecuting anyone caught crossing the border illegally. This included individuals and families seeking humanitarian asylum. This meant that when families including young children attempted to cross the border, the children would be placed into youth detention facilities and the adult parents would be arrested and detained separately.

According to government reports, in the few months that this policy was in place, 2,700 children were separated from their families (Independent)—however, some government agencies have estimated that this number is actually much higher than the government has indicated. The practice of family separation was harshly criticized for its inhumane nature, and for poor accounting that made it extremely difficult to keep track of children and put them back into contact with their parents. Jonathan White, a public health official in the Department of Health and Human Services, has been one of the most outspoken critics of this practice, and has consistently warned of the trauma and mental health damage to children that could result from separating families in such a way.

Though harsh immigration policy is nothing novel, the practice of separating families at the border is new and unique to the Trump administration. Under past administrations, even when enforcing a strict stance on illegal immigration, presidents would typically refrain from prosecuting immigrants who had crossed the border illegally if they were traveling with children. Though officials admit that some children may have been separated from their parents during Obama’s presidency, they maintain that this was very rare and only in the event that it were for the child’s protection. Once the child’s safety was ensured, they would always be promptly reunited with their families (Politifact). The practice of targeting and separating immigrant families crossing the border illegally is new to the Trump administration, and has enraged critics who already view the president’s immigration strategy as overly harsh.

Just a few months after Trump rescinded his family separation policy, his administration once again found itself in hot water when reports emerged that the government had lost track of ‘thousands’ of migrant children that had been separated from their parents during the few months that the policy was in place (Vice). Due to poor accounting methods and the failure of the HHS to identify in their records which children in custody had been separated from their parents, it appears that thousands of immigrant children who were separated from their families have now been effectively lost and are floating somewhere in the U.S. detention system. This means that those children may never be reunited with their parents, or that it may take years to do so.

Amid these crises associated with family separations, in June 2018 photos went viral revealing the inadequate conditions endured by immigrant children in U.S. custody. Among the most striking of these images was one that depicted two children sleeping on the floor inside of what appears to be a cage. Though it was later revealed that these photos were actually taken in 2014 under the Obama administration—which left Obama officials scrambling to find an explanation—these images only further disturbed critics who advocate for more lenient immigration policies. As the practice of keeping immigrant children in chained enclosures appears to be thriving during the Trump administration, these images have struck a chord with the public, leading political leaders and citizens to demand better conditions for the migrant children in U.S. custody.

As these scandals have continued to emerge, some are left questioning how the immigration detention process truly works, and how even immigrant children are being forced to endure such intolerable conditions. In reality, the issue comes down to the combination of an overly hostile and inhumane stance towards immigrants and immigrant families, and the U.S. government’s incapacity to sustain all of the immigrants that it has promised to detain. Thus arises a paradox in which political officials and the president promise to detain as many illegal immigrants as possible, but are then incapable of providing the support and resources to treat those immigrants properly once they are in custody. And, alas, the government finds itself in a trap of unfulfilled political promises, inhumane treatment, and public outrage.

As of early February, there are over 48,000 individuals in immigrant detention, and conservatives in Congress have asked for extra space in detention facilities to support even more (The Marshall Project). This number has steadily increased under each presidential administration since Clinton. Today, of this 48,000 an estimated 13,000 immigrant minors are in U.S. custody under the Office of Refugee Resettlement (NPR). As expected, the number of minors in detention rose dramatically in the months after Trump’s family separation policy was enacted (Independent).

The U.S. government has been harshly criticized for its treatment of immigrants, including children and families seeking asylum, upon their arrival at the southern border. Immediately upon detention at the border, immigrants are sent into Customs and Border Protection (CBP) security. They are typically put in holding cells, where they are expected to stay for 1-3 days, though they are occasionally held for up to a week. While in CBP custody, detainees are forced to sleep on the floor and are not permitted to shower or wash their hands (Human Rights Watch). These CBP holding cells are notorious for being extraordinarily cold, with immigrants regularly referring to them as hieleras. While in holding, detainees are only given Mylar blankets for protection against the cold (HRW). CBP has been under intense public scrutiny for years due to the poor conditions in these holding cells, and amid reports that it has not provided adequate medical attention to suffering immigrants in detention.

After their time in CBP holding cells, families are often separated and sent to other facilities while they await meetings with asylum officers. Typically, women and children are sent to one detention center, while adult men are sent to separate facilities. Unaccompanied immigrant minors, and children forcibly separated from their families at the border, are sent to youth detention facilities where they are expected to remain for 1-3 months. Since Trump was forced to reverse his family separation policy, more have been sent to family detention centers, of which there are currently 3 throughout the country. Sometimes, before being sent to these long-term facilities, women and children are first sent to an intermediary processing facility that many refer to as the perrera because of its chain-link fencing and the dog-like conditions which detainees are forced to endure (HRW).

Following this period of detention, unaccompanied minors are either placed in foster homes or reunited with their families. However, the former only occurs in the event that their parents or guardians actually obtain asylum, which is becoming increasingly difficult under the Trump administration’s aggressive anti-immigration policy.

As immigrants continue to arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, the number of migrant adults and children in detention will only increase—and, without the proper government response to immigration, this will only mean that more and more asylum-seeking individuals and families will be forced to live in inhumane and prison-like conditions as government resources dwindle.

The recent reports of sex abuse of migrant minors are horrifying, and add to the snowballing evidence that the U.S. government is incapable of ensuring the safety of those in its custody. In fact, the government recently relaxed a federal requirement that all detained migrant children receive adequate healthcare in order to be able to house more children using fewer resources (Reuters). This trend of stretching existing resources to support a growing population is only going to worsen as facilities expand to accommodate more immigrants.

As these disturbing reports, viral images, and horrifying stories continue to emerge as a result of the Trump administration’s ‘Zero-Tolerance’ stance, it only becomes increasingly difficult for conservative leaders in Congress to defend the president’s harsh immigration policy. This becomes particularly true, and demands for reform become more and more urgent, when these scandals involve immigrant children—which many of them have. While many of the president’s supporters may agree that immigrants crossing the border illegally should be punished, this stance is much harder to defend when the immigrants at hand are children.

The immigration ‘crisis’ is only going to continue as more asylum-seeking migrants arrive at the border. However, adding beds to already inadequate detention facilities is not the answer. Before promising to detain as many immigrants as possible, it is necessary that the government addresses the needs and rights of those already in its custody.


  1. Richard Gonzales. (2019 Feb 26). "Sexual Assault of Detained Migrant Children Reported In The Thousands Since 2015". NPR. Retrieved Tuesday, March 5, 2019.
  2. N/A. (2019 Feb 26). "Press Releases: Deutch Releases Data Showing Sexual Assault of Unaccompanied Minors in HHS Custody". Ted Deutch: Press Releases. Retrieved Sunday, March 3, 2019.
  3. Monique O Madan. (2019 Mar 1). "Thousands of kids have been sexually abused at U.S. migrant shelters, feds say". Miami Herald. Retrieved Wednesday, March 6, 2019.
  4. Matthew Haag. (2019 Feb 28). "Thousands of migrant children allegedly sexually abused at US detention centres, records show". The Independent. Retrieved Tuesday, March 5, 2019.
  5. John Kruzel. (2018 June 19). "No, Donald Trump's separation of immigrant families was not Barack Obama's policy". PolitiFact. Retrieved Tuesday, March 5, 2019.
  6. Tess Owen. (2019 Jan 17). "The Trump administration lost track of thousands of migrant children separated from their parents". Vice News. Retrieved Wednesday, March 6, 2019.
  7. Emily Kassie. (2019 Feb 12). "How Trump Inherited His Expanding Detention System". The Marshall Project. Retrieved Wednesday, March 6, 2019.
  8. Michael Garcia Bochenek. (2018 Feb 28). "In the Freezer: Abusive Conditions for Women and Children in US Immigration Holding Cells". Human Rights Watch. Retrieved Friday, March 8, 2019.
  9. Yeganeh Torbati, Kristina Cooke. (2019 Feb 14). "First stop for migrant kids: For-profit detention center". Reuters. Retrieved Wednesday, March 6, 2019.

About Author(s)

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Kristen Martinez-Gugerli
Kristen Gugerli is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in Political Science, pursuing a BPhil in International and Area Studies, minoring in Religious Studies, Spanish, and Quechua, and earning a certificate in Latin American Studies. She studied abroad in the summer of 2017 in Cusco, Peru, and then conducted research abroad in Valladolid, Mexico in the summer of 2018 through the Center for Latin American Studies' Seminar and Field Trip program. She is particularly interested in issues involving indigenous and women's human rights in Latin America, and has tried to incorporate these interests into her studies. She is currently writing her senior thesis about existing trends in the political participation of indigenous peoples in Mexico.