The sexual assault crisis among migrant women in the U.S.

Emily Donovan, Mia Shpiner, and Brianna Canales

With the spike in immigration to the U.S. in the last few years, authorities have continuously failed to investigate many issues that immigrants face after their arrival.

Populations of refugee and migrant women, especially those facing detention, are very unlikely to see justice regarding crimes committed against them.

Those are the conclusions extracted from multiple datasets about the levels of reporting, access to police reports, and the dissemination of migrant hate crimes or sexual abuse among the population.

Looking at these data from other government agencies, NGOs, and surveys, one confirms their inability to access and report occurrences, inefficient police follow-up, and the recurrent silence on such issues as they escalate.

The first of those problems lies in the roots of underreporting. Existing and accessible data on sexual violence against immigrant women is very limited because of the alleged secrecies claimed by police officials.

Most of the information comes from leaks to non-profit organizations and research centers. Namely, the Pew Research Center, the Freedom for Immigrants organization, and UN Women are organizations working in the field.

For example, we know that:

“34 percent of the 6.4 million noncitizen immigrant women of reproductive age were uninsured, compared to 9 percent of U.S. born women” in 2016.

Pew Research Center, 2017

Immigrant women are often at the mercy of government officials or police officers who dictate their present and future livelihoods. The relationship between immigrant women and ICE detention officers is still far underexplored.

Pew Research Center, 2021

The Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement received more than 4500 allegations of sexual abuse and sexual harassment of specifically underage immigrants between 2015 and 2018.

Undocumented young women experience the biggest burden because of intersectional pressures, given that many of them are people of color or escape from situations of extreme poverty and war.

Between 2010 and 2016, a total of 14,700 cases of sexual and physical abuse were reported against ICE employees and officials. Specifically between 2014 and 2016, the OIG (Office of Inspector General) reported more than one case of sexual abuse involving people in detention each day.

OGI, 2017

Between 2010 and 2016, the Office of the Inspector General (OGI – US Department of Health) calculated the total of reported sexual abuse cases and tracked how many of them went investigated or not. Shockingly, only 298 out of 33,156 cases were accurately investigated. This data shows that only .89 percent of the cases received attention from prosecution authorities.

The element fear

Data shows that fear among immigrant and undocumented communities is a significant reason for cases going undereported or victims dropping them themselves.

43% of civil and criminal cases involving Latinos were dropped because of the fear of deportation. 45% would not report a crime for the same reason.

Recent policies derived from the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) have granted legal protection for undocumented women who record personal injury.

However, the protections are only conceded after evidence of battery. This impediment is summed to the fact that access to medical resources is scarce among immigrant women. The availability and likelihood of immediate medical examination are also very unlikely.

A study reported on 700 advocates and attorneys for data on the reasoning for why victims often fail to report their assaults. 78% noted their concern about going to the police for legal assistance as one reason for their silence. 75% registered any form of concern about pursuing legal action because of contact or conflict with their abuser. While 43% shared they ultimately discontinued their pursuit of civil or criminal cases against their offender.

NCDSV (2017)

While the lowest response category was centered around victims who ‘dropped cases,’ the highest category was regarding fear which prevented said victims from initially contacting the police. Therefore, the data demonstrates that sexual assault victims have disassociated law enforcement as a trustworthy alternative.

These statistics apply to all women in their pursuit of justice, though when analyzed through the specific lens or experience of immigrant women, the data reveals a unique story behind bars.

Detention centers

Immigrant women in ICE detention camps are one of the populations with more vulnerability regarding sexual abuse. Still, little is known about the extent to which those events go unpunished and how these women, found in a situation of complete illegality, can seek judicial reviews or defense.

This combination of fear with this legal turmoil associated with substantial psychological factors raises the suspicion that authorities are particularly invested. in hiding their situation.

Strikingly, ICE’s available data shows that one of the recurrent issues with those claims in ICE detention centers stems from the nature or substantiation of sexual assault claims.

Between 2012 and 2017, ICE found that only 12% of claims were “substantiated.” For the rest of the claims, 59% were “unsubstantiated,” while 26% were “unfounded.” A common figure representing the percentage of false cases is 5%, but this seems a very low rate, almost a generic figure, that needs more debunking. On top of these figures, 90% of all women in detention do not report their sexual assault.

The “public attitude”

This scarce data fits the public attitude to reporting general assault. According to NCSDV (2017), 45% of women “did not want the hassle of dealing with the police.” 43% felt like they had “a lack of evidence.” 34% “feared the court process.” 40 percent “believed that the offender wouldn’t be convicted or accurately punished.”

These data reveal the current lack of support for women who have experienced abuse. The situation in detention centers mirrors a panorama of situations in which society’s attention leads to very unsupportive and dangerous environments where inmates wait for a court audience for months.

Another data to be considered is the general sentiment regarding immigrant communities, as the public attitude towards immigrants could be a game changer. In 1960, only 5% of the U.S. population were foreign-born. In 2020, 13.7% were born elsewhere, mainly in Latin American and Asian countries.

According to a study done by the Society for Social Work and Research in 2021, which looked into the public attitude towards immigrants in the US, the general attitudes toward immigrants have significantly shifted from 1996 to 2014. The number of US citizens who agree with the statement, “America should take stronger measures to exclude illegal immigrants’ ‘ has increased greatly.

By painting immigrants as criminals, it is no surprise that migrant women can fall victim to this villainization of migrants and be seen as easy prey in detention centers.

Other issues

Looking collectively, the inherent social disadvantages, the incorrect criminal reports from ICE, and the negative collective opinion of immigrant women in America create an environment of vulnerability and danger.

Other factors that tap into this epidemic of underreporting include media rhetoric and political ideology, which are likely unmanageable on a bigger scale.

The Pew Research Center published that 83% of Hispanics “claim a religious affiliation,” slightly higher than the national average of 80%. The social and cultural norms associated with catholicism are typical of Latin American communities, whose populations are overrepresented among detained migrants.

Individually, religious norms and shame also affect the likelihood of seeing sexual assault more reported among migrant women. Sexual purity is valuable in many sects of religion. So, far from the community, doubt and fear of moral judgment can influence a woman’s ability to reach out for help, as abuse can come up as an indication of sexual deviance.

Finding solutions

Reallocating funds for more effective health and social care in ICE detention centers is urgent due to the pressing situation. To provide physical safety, medical centers should be accessible to areas with large populations of immigrants and detained citizens of multiple nationalities. The data generated by these centers should be made public to allow further inquiries and investigation.

Government-provided medical centers can be subject to the corruption of legal protection. So, introducing medical centers affiliated with grassroots support organizations could eliminate some fear deterrents of one seeking help.

More importantly, there must be stronger oversight of ICE officers and detention camps in all sectors. There is inherent and unnecessary secrecy in the dealings with unauthorized migrants.

The high number of dropped cases is a red flag for the need for further investigation. It also signals the damage done by the limited reports and data accessible.

ICE officials hold intense responsibility for the safety and well-being of immigrant people. Data on their training and management and personal accountability should clarify the role that ICE plays in keeping hundreds of thousands of lives in which there are fathers, mothers, and kids.

To achieve equality, opportunity, and safety for all people in America, immigrants deserve one of the most laudable benefits of democracy, which is the accountability of power. Urgently, migrant women symbolize the female struggle in households as they are the ones to pay the worst prices in terms of sexual violence, which comes up as a tragic element that comes with being an immigrant in modern America. More data would help data journalists and students to reverse the silent erasure of immigrant women’s rights in this country.

Edited by Helton Levy

Works Cited

Burnett, John. “New Immigration Crackdowns Creating ‘Chilling Effect’ on Crime Reporting.” NPR, NPR, 25 May 2017, 

Fernandez, Manny. “’You Have to Pay with Your Body’: The Hidden Nightmare of Sexual Violence on the Border.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Mar. 2019,

“Immigration Policies Impact On Survivors.” Immigration Policies: Impact on Survivors, 2017,

Speri, Alice. “1,224 Complaints Reveal a Staggering Pattern of Sexual Abuse in Immigration Detention. Half of Those Accused Worked for Ice.” The Intercept, The Intercept, 11 Apr. 2018,

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