Women Allege Illegal Strip Searches While Held In Immigration Detention

Thirty-one women — 14 of them transgender — in a California jail say they have been subject to blanket, routine strip searches despite laws and policies that say individual suspicion is required.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson AFP / Getty Images / Paul J. Richards

Thirty-one women currently held in an immigration detention facility in California — 14 of them transgender — filed a complaint with federal and local authorities on Monday alleging they were subjected to humiliating, invasive strip searches in violation of state law and federal policy.

The women are detained at the Santa Ana City Jail, where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is holding people suspected of immigration violations.

“Strip searches of people in immigration detention at the Santa Ana City Jail are conducted without reasonable suspicion, sometimes by members of the opposite gender, in view of other detainees, in unsanitary conditions, and have turned into sexual assaults,” said the complaint filed by the Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), which is representing the women.

“These strip searches re-traumatize victims of past sexual assault, deter attorney visits, and are inhumane,” the complaint said. “If women refuse to be searched, they are isolated, denied food, and pressured by threats of transfers and deportations until they comply with the search.”

Federal officials and Santa Ana officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

At the crux of the complaint, the women allege strip searches are routinely performed as a blanket policy — including during booking and when the women are transferred — rather than when officials have reasonable individual suspicion a woman may be carrying contraband.

California Penal Code Section 4030, the complaint said, “prohibits visual strip searches absent individual reasonable suspicion, and prohibits physical body cavity searches by non-medical personnel.” They also contend that individual supsicion is also required under ICE guidelines and under federal court rulings.

“Both the transgender and cisgender women are told to strip naked, and an officer performs a visual inspection of the breasts, armpits, buttocks, and genitalia of the woman,” the complaint said.

“The women are told to lift up their breast, spread apart the sides of their labia and to pull back their clitoral hoods to prove that they are not hiding contraband in their vagina or vulva. They are told to bend at the waist, spread their buttocks, and cough three times. Women who did not bend to the officers’ satisfaction are told to cough again.”

Particularly concerning, the complaint continues, is that women are routinely strip-searched after meeting with their attorneys. These searches, they say, “may even deter people in immigration detention from meeting with their attorneys, compromising legal representation.”

Most of the transgender women underwent strip-searches by male guards and were given no option to be searched by a female guard, another violation of federal detention policy, the complaint said. ICE guidelines for handling transgender detainees state that strip searches will be conducted by staff of the same gender as the detainee, and that transgender detainees shall choose the gender of the staff conducting cavity searches.

“Strip searches at the Santa Ana City Jail amount to state-sanctioned sexual assaults on women,” said Christina Fialho, an Orange County-based attorney and the co-executive director of CIVIC, said in a statement. “Santa Ana City Jail has been operating outside the limits of the Constitution and state law, while flagrantly violating federal standards for strip searches.”

The complaint calls on authorities, including the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to investigate practices at the Santa Ana Jail and for the facility to adopt new policies.

Read the complaint:

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Dominic Holden is the national LGBT reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Dominic Holden at

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