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Sex abuse at immigrant family detention center, groups allege

At least three employees at a Texas detention center are accused of harassing and sexual abusing female immigrant detainees.
A Spanish and English welcome sign is seen above a door in a secured entrance area at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas on July 31, 2014.
A Spanish and English welcome sign is seen above a door in a secured entrance area at the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas on July 31, 2014.

Women held at an immigrant family detention in Texas accuse guards of sexual abusing and harassing them in front of their children, advocacy groups alleged in a complaint filed to federal officials.

At least three employees at the Karnes County Residential Center are suspected of engaging in harassment and sexual abuse in the two months since the detention center was first opened to hold immigrant families, lawyers representing the detained women and children alleged.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the University of Texas School of Law, Human Rights First and the law office of Javier N. Maldonado filed the complaint with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last week after the groups became aware of "serious allegations of substantial, ongoing sexual abuse" at the detention center in violation of laws designed to protect detainees.

Karnes personnel are accused of “removing female detainees from their cells late in the evening and during morning hours for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts,” the attorneys wrote in the complaint. They also allege that staff members have called the detainees their girlfriends, and have engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior in front of fellow detainees, even children.

A spokesperson for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would not comment on the claims, but said the facility has a strict zero-tolerance policy against sexual assault in accordance to federal regulations.

"ICE remains committed to ensuring all individuals in our custody are held and treated in a save, secure and humane manner," ICE spokesperson Nina Pruneda provided in a statement. "Accusations of alleged unlawful conduct are investigated thoroughly and if substantiated, appropriate action is taken." 

GEO Group, the private for-profit prison firm that runs the facility, strongly denied the allegations, telling NBC News in a statement that "the center provides high quality care" and that the company has been transparent in its operations since the facility opened to families in August.

The allegations join a flurry of complaints against the federal government's immigrant detention centers built to hold Central American women and children who were caught attempting to cross into the U.S. More than 66,000 family units have been apprehended along the southwestern border in the last fiscal year, straining federal resources and immigration courts processing the families' cases.

Karnes became the second family detention center converted in the wake of heightened attention at the border this summer, with a third massive facility on its way.

The rapid expansion of facilities to detain women and children as they await their hearings before immigration courts is an abrupt about-face in policies after federal authorities shuttered a family detention center in 2009 over allegations of human rights abuses.