Central American women often running away from sexual violence in their home countries claim women are being sexually assaulted by guards at a Texas detention center, according to a civil rights group.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund told the Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson in a letter on Sept. 30 to investigate "serious allegations of substantial, ongoing sexual abuse in Karnes County," Texas by private prison contractor employees. The facility is used by the Department of Homeland Security to house women and children immigrant detainees. Many of the women detained at the facility are escaping violence and sexual assault in their home countries in Central America.

MALDEF's staff attorney, Marisa Bono, told Latin Post they have been monitoring the detention center and in contact with pro bono lawyers handling immigration papers for detainees when stories started surfacing of strange things going on at the center.

The letter of complaint says numerous women have said harassment and sexual assault has been going on the facility since August 2014. The allegations include, "Karnes Center personnel removing female detainees from their cells late in the evening and during early morning hours for purposes of engaging in sexual acts in various parts of the facility; personnel calling detainees, 'novias' or 'girlfriends' and requesting sexual favors in exchange for money, promises of assistance with their pending immigration cases, and shelter when and if the women are released; and Karnes Center guards kissing, fondling and/or groping female detainees in front of other detainees and children."

ICE spokeswoman Adeline Pruneda told Reuters the agency had a zero-tolerance policy for sexual abuse and assault. "Individuals in our custody are housed and treated in a safe, secure and humane manner," she said.

If the allegations are confirmed, personnel at Karnes will be in violation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

"PREA is a federal law that was enacted to prevent rape and sexual assault in prisons. It creates a zero tolerance policy for facilities like Karnes and other immigration detention centers, and it very explicitly makes any sexual contact between personnel like guards and detainees illegal. Because if you are a prisoner you can't really give consent because you are in a very vulnerable situation and you're facing, in this case, guards and personnel who are abusing their power and abusing their authority over you. And this applies especially in this context, because these women are fleeing horrific violence, including sexual violence and extortion in their home countries and so they are especially vulnerable to that type of abuse and manipulation," Bono said.

Four women reporting the allegations did reach out to the Center supervisors, but no steps have been taken to stop or prevent the abuse involving at least three guards at Karnes. 

The detention center, which houses about 500 people, was built and is run by a private prison contractor, GEO group, based in Florida, which has repeatedly been featured in news reports over allegations of abuse and neglect, and several contracts have been canceled in Texas.  

Latin Post contacted the GEO Group for comment on the allegations of sexual assault at one of its facilities, and they released the following statement:

GEO strongly refutes these allegations. The Karnes County Residential Center provides a safe, clean, and family friendly environment for mothers and children awaiting required processing by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. The Center provides high quality care, and our company strongly denies any allegations to the contrary. Onsite ICE personnel provide direct oversight to ensure compliance with ICE's Family Residential Standards.

Since its activation, the Karnes County Residential Center has, under direction and guidance from ICE, created an open and transparent policy of allowing visits to the Center by the public, elected local and national officials, federal officials from ICE and other government agencies, as well as nongovernmental organizations.

A coalition of 15 Texas-based civil and immigration rights organizations wrote to the former head of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, in 2011 to end the contract to build the Karnes Center. The center opened in August 2014.

Bono said, "The [Obama] administration only recently went back to detaining families. Previously they were released on bail, or parole when they were eligible, and it is very disturbing to see children in very restrictive, penal-like settings."