color photograph of a protester wearing a black winter coat and holding a cardboard sign with handwritten text that reads "abolish the police"
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - FEBRUARY 03: Demonstrators gather in front of the federal courthouse to protest the release from prison of former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke on February 3, 2022, in Chicago. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

New details surrounding the alleged sexual assault of a teenage migrant by Chicago police officers is bringing to light the extreme vulnerability of asylum-seekers in the U.S.—especially women and children. 

On July 6, news broke that an officer allegedly impregnated a teenager and that other police agents engaged in “improper sexual contact” with asylum-seekers. The Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) confirmed an investigation into the allegations the following day. The probe, from the onset, was surrounded by mistrust. 

Since the news of the assault broke, the city relocated the dozens of asylum-seekers from the 10th District police station in Ogden, where the abuse allegedly occurred. Advocates have been unable to contact potential witnesses or survivors of the misconduct. 

The mayor’s press office did not respond to requests for information on the whereabouts of the asylum-seekers, while 10th District officers told Prism that the immigrants they housed had been transferred across police stations also sheltering immigrants. 

“They threw us out each time we tried to contact asylum-seekers in police stations,” said Baltazar Enríquez, the president of the Little Village Community Council, a grassroots community organization founded in 1957 that helps asylum-seekers in Chicago. 

A week and a half after the investigation was announced, there was little to show for it. COPA Chief Administrator Andrea Kersten announced in a press conference this month that the alleged victims and any individual with direct knowledge of the suspected abuse had not been identified. She also confirmed the probe of a separate police sexual misconduct case against another asylum-seeker at the 19th District police station. 

Almost 900 asylum seekers—mostly from Venezuela and Central America—were staying inside Chicago police stations as of July 18, according to the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications. Cities like New York and Philadelphia, which have also received asylum-seekers from the Southern border since last year, have housed them in shelters instead.

Chicago advocates are questioning the investigation’s transparency. Rabbi Michael Ben Yosef, the founder of the Chicago Activist Coalition For Justice, protested outside the 10th District police station on July 7 and said he believed that “COPA is trying to cover up the crime.” He added that it is unconscionable that, after the alleged assault took place, potential witnesses were nowhere to be found. 

“It is like a clean-up of the crime scene, so there’s no evidence,” he added, “like a predator keeping their victim from telling what has happened.”

COPA’s Kersten acknowledged in a press conference that in sexual misconduct allegations, there “are incredibly powerful barriers to people feeling they can trust a system and come forward and share their experiences.” These kinds of barriers do seem present in this case.

COPA has not revealed the names of the officers under investigation. However, the Chicago Tribune confirmed that the agent identified in the text message that initiated the probe was indeed assigned to the Ogden District at the time of the allegation. Kersten declined to reveal if this officer had been interviewed by her office. She said that she has not recommended that the officers under investigation be suspended or stripped of their powers.

The road to accountability

On July 7, the same day COPA announced its investigation, the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police union President John Catanzara called the complaint “nonsense” and the allegation “a bunch of BS” in a video. He also warned that if the media revealed the names of the investigated officers, “we will be right there in lockstep with those officers holding those people accountable.”

Enríquez of the Little Village Community Council said he does not trust COPA’s investigation. 

“A culture has existed for years in police stations and the police department [in Chicago], where officers rape, kill, and murder and are never investigated,” Enríquez told Prism. “The union is going to protect these officers with all its might.”

According to the Citizens Police Data Project, a nonprofit that publishes information about police misconduct in Chicago based on the city’s data, from 1988 to 2018, officers were disciplined in only 7% of the 247,161 allegations of police misconduct. This tally does not distinguish sexual crime. This type of misconduct is virtually impossible to track as public data is not transparent on sexual attacks, according to the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, a grassroots group documenting police crime.

It has been amply documented, however, that sexual assaults of immigrants happen at alarming rates in the U.S. According to a 2019 report, between January 2010 and July 2016, more than 33,000 complaints of sexual assault or physical abuse were filed against Department of Homeland Security agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which deal with immigration law enforcement. The DHS Inspector General investigated less than 1% of these cases.

In 2018, in the most updated statistics online, ICE reported 374 formal accusations of sexual assault, with only 48 substantiated cases and 29 pending as of that year. The helplessness of female migrants before immigration agents may be amplified before police officers, research shows

There is “a culture” of predation in the U.S. police, according to a 2020 research paper co-written by scholars from Bowling Green State University and the University of Texas at Dallas: “Rather than an anomaly, sexual predation on the part of police, along with the routine cover-ups that perpetuate these crimes, appears to be just one component of the ‘rotten barrel’ that depicts a culture of police corruption.”

In Chicago’s sexual misconduct investigation, COPA will submit its recommendation to interim superintendent Fred Waller. He will decide whether to discipline the officers if they are found liable.

Indictments of Chicago’s police officers are exceptionally rare, even in cases of murder. Since 2016, up to 91 residents of Illinois have died due to police interactions, and about 10 civilians are killed each year by Chicago police officers, according to the Law Enforcement Epidemiology Project of the University of Illinois, Chicago. Only one officer has been convicted in the last 50 years—for the Laquan McDonald execution in 2019—and only after public protests forced the city to release the police cam video.

In the current case, the investigators have not identified victims. Potential witnesses have been unavailable to advocates, and there is little knowledge of the conditions of asylum-seekers in police stations. “The intention [of Chicago’s officials] is that people just forget about the incident,” Enríquez said, “and that the community stops the demands for justice.”

Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York City who covers immigration, social justice issues, Latin America, and the United Nations. Follow him on Twitter at @mauriziogro.