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A new federal rule takes effect next year meant to discourage rape in U.S. jails and in prisons. But human rights advocates worry it will have a blind spot: immigration detention centers. They're run by the Department of Homeland Security and some DHS officials want an exemption from the rule.

As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, victims of abuse inside those facilities say that would be a dangerous oversight. And first, a warning: Our story contains material that may not be appropriate for young listeners.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: In 2009, immigration agents arrived at the workplace of a man who came to the U.S. on a visa designed for crewmembers working on a ship. He'd overstayed that visa and he was taken into federal custody to be deported to India. One night last year, he says, three inmates who were gang members showed up in his cell.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ten o'clock, they just came to my bed after the count and, you know, started the assault. It was a pretty scary moment in my life, you know.

JOHNSON: NPR is withholding the man's name because of the sensitivity surrounding his case. The man says the abuse continued for months, and he was afraid to report it because guards at the facility were often in league with gang members. He told a few people who didn't take him seriously. But eventually, he was able to see an official in Chicago.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And he just looked at me, sat there, you know, and went and got some tissue paper – just because I was crying and I was begging him not to send me back over there. And I even told him, like, if you send me back, I'm going to kill myself. I even told him that.

JOHNSON: Months later, with the help of a lawyer, the man got released. He's still fighting to stay in the U.S., possibly on a visa available for victims of crime.

Human rights advocates say his experience has been all too common. In the last five years, immigrant detainees have filed about 200 sexual abuse complaints with the federal government. But that greatly understates the problem, says Joanne Lin of the American Civil Liberties Union.

JOANNE LIN: Many immigration detainees do not speak or read English well and do not know what their legal rights are in the United States. Traumatized by the sexual assaults, they are understandably loath to report the abuse to the same government authorities that had the power to rape, detain and deport them.

JOHNSON: Lin and a coalition of civil liberties experts want immigration detention centers covered under a new federal rule addressing prison rape. It's supposed to give inmates better means to report sexual abuse, and to give guards and wardens a clear mandate to stop it. But these detention centers are run by the Department of Homeland Security, which says it already has a zero tolerance policy and that it's trying to overhaul the detention system in pushing its biggest private contractor to do more.

But Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University, says DHS has not done enough to earn an exemption.

PROFESSOR BRENDA SMITH: Immigrant detainees are moved from facility to facility, and just from the point of view of equal protection and also for consistency, whether you are protected from abuse at the hands of someone who is supposed to be your custodian should not differ whether you are in a jail, a prison, or in a DHS facility.

JOHNSON: Smith and others who follow the issue say a string of recent guilty pleas by guards in those facilities demonstrates the system isn't working.

Michelle Brane, who works for the Women's Refugee Commission, says she's heard other horror stories.

MICHELLE BRANE: We've also had detainees who claim - who have asked for HIV tests after reporting an abuse, a sexual violation, and who spend months and months before any medical exam is provided.

JOHNSON: That's what happened to the man from India who says he suffered abuse in the Illinois facility.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What I saw in the detention center it was the ugly side of America. I never knew that side of America. Now I do.

JOHNSON: The White House is expected to release its rule in final form early in the new year.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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