Nightmare in Miami

Transsexual Christina Madrazo Says She Was Raped by a Guard in an INS Detention Center. Now She's Suing the U.S. for $15 Million.

Christina Madrazo was waiting for the spin cycle to finish in a Miami laundromat when she noticed something that might put an end to her troubles: a law firm's ad in a Spanish-language newspaper that said there were ways undocumented immigrants could become legal. Seven years had passed since Madrazo first snuck across the Rio Grande, fleeing the violence and rejection she had endured as a transsexual in Mexico, and she was tired of hiding. Without legal status, she couldn't seek legitimate work, much less pursue her dream of becoming a fashion designer, so she'd been trying to piece together a living with a series of under-the-table odd jobs. Often she went to bed hungry.

Worse, the fear of being deported to Mexico throbbed constantly at the back of her mind. And if she ever forgot it, every time she looked in the mirror a scar next to her dainty right eyebrow reminded her of the beatings she'd taken from assailants who called her maricón ("faggot") and insisted, with fists and heavy shoes, that she "act like a man." At the attorney's office, she was heartened to learn that sexual orientation was a category recognized in U.S. asylum law. She applied right away.

But instead of granting her the freedom "just to live my life and be myself," the Immigration and Naturalization Service rejected her plea, and on May 4, 2000, took her straight from a hearing to the notorious Krome detention center on the swampy outskirts of Miami. Confined there for about three weeks, Madrazo alleges she was raped by an INS guard. Twice. On April 1, she will file a $15 million lawsuit against the U.S. government, charging the country from which she sought refuge with subjecting her to brutal attack. Her asylum appeal is still pending.

The lawsuit comes amid a string of high-profile embarrassments for the beleaguered immigration agency. Last week, four top officials in the INS were replaced in the wake of revelations that a Florida flight school received notification that visas had been approved for hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi six months to the day after they crashed jets into the World Trade Center.

In addition to the relentless charges of ineptitude and inefficiency—from government inspection agencies as well as from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle—the INS is under a constant barrage of accusations of misconduct. Last year, the Justice Department fielded 4200 allegations that INS personnel had committed, among other infractions, sexual assault, drug smuggling, theft, and even murder.

Many of those complaints involve INS detention centers, where more than 20,000 people are locked up on any given day. The charges—which range from denial of toiletries to threats, beatings, and sexual abuse—are not so different from the sort of grievances filed by inmates in prisons. But INS detainees—who are not serving criminal sentences, but are held pending the outcome of deportation proceedings—are not guaranteed attorneys and, as they have not been sentenced, have no idea how long they might remain shut up in detention. (According to the INS, the average stay is 40 days, but thousands, including asylum seekers, languish for months, even years.) Many don't understand English. It's easy, then, for INS personnel to abuse detainees—to coerce favors with promises of release, warnings of transfer to harsher facilities, or threats of deportation, even when the officials don't really have the power to make such decisions.

Not surprisingly, many detainees are too petrified to protest—which means the accusations on record may be only a small fraction of the actual abuses, advocates say. Madrazo was the exception. She confided in several officials after the first rape and within days filed a formal complaint. She also went directly to officials immediately after the second.

Madrazo's allegations emboldened about a dozen of the roughly 100 women at the 500-bed, low-security facility to come forward with myriad tales of sexual misconduct, ranging from adolescent-style flirtations to downright assault. Women told advocates that guards rubbed up against them or fondled them during searches. They said guards and deportation officers propositioned them, often promising gifts of cosmetics or other contraband in exchange for sexual favors. The women described barely concealed encounters between INS personnel and detainees, from a guard masturbating while a detainee danced for him to ongoing affairs. Many who weren't involved in such liaisons said they were threatened with deportation if they snitched. Two women got pregnant at Krome that year—one after sex with a guard, another after sex with a male detainee. All told, some 15 officers were named. Nine were transferred from Krome to desk jobs after the allegations surfaced. Krome's reform-minded director abruptly resigned.

The complaints launched a federal investigation by the several agencies of the Justice Department—the FBI, the Office of Public Integrity, the Office of the Inspector General, and the U.S. Attorney's Office. So far, it has resulted in two convictions. In the most recent, in October, former INS guard Clarence Parker pleaded guilty to engaging in a sexual act, which he said was consensual. When he was sentenced to three years' probation in December, it was revealed that after Parker lost his job at Krome in the wake of the allegation, he was hired at a Florida facility for juvenile sex offenders. The Miami Herald reported that a Krome supervisor had given him a rating of "very good" on a job reference. The judge at his sentencing ordered him to resign his new post immediately, saying, "It's like putting an arsonist in the fire department."

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