After touring the Sherburne County jail on Wednesday, Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said detainees being held for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should be separated from the rest of the jail population.

Ellison went to the jail after reports that at least one and possibly two ICE detainees had been sexually assaulted by prisoners while being housed there.

Sherburne County officials told Ellison the ICE detainees at the jail, housed under a federal contract, are now segregated from prisoners. But Ellison said he remains concerned that other county jails in Minnesota holding ICE detainees may not have made the move.

In March, an 18-year-old high school student being held for federal immigration authorities in the Sherburne County jail was repeatedly sexually assaulted by his cellmate, a registered sex offender serving time in the jail as a “boarder” from the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

The assault occurred at the state’s largest jail for immigrant detainees and highlighted an emerging nationwide pattern of sexual abuse at ICE detention centers.

The contracts to keep the ICE detainees have proved lucrative for private and public corrections facilities. But, unlike prisoners being held on criminal offenses, the detainees are kept for administrative cases.

“ICE detainees are a class of people who are going to be deported. Other folks are there because they violated American law,” Ellison said.

“I think they should be segregated and maintained differently.”

Ellison was not able to speak with ICE detainees while touring the jail. He said his observations nevertheless confirm a need for immigration reform, including housing ICE detainees in a less restrictive environment than jail if they have not committed a serious criminal offense.

As required by Congress, ICE detains at least 34,000 individuals across the country each day in a network of county jails, privately run contract facilities and federal facilities that cost taxpayers $2 billion each year.

“Millions of people are being detained and a host of issues emerge as a result of that,” Ellison said.

“It creates a ‘You build it and they’ll come’ phenomenon.”