Last Friday, a Honduran asylum seeker suffered an unthinkable tragedy when she had a stillbirth while in ICE detention in Texas. While the facts of this case are still coming to light, it is only one of many tragic incidents involving immigrants detained by the federal government in recent months.
According to reports, the 24-year-old woman who was six months pregnant had spent days detained in Border Patrol custody before being transferred to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Port Isabel Detention Center in South Texas. From there, she was taken to a hospital where she suffered this terrible trauma.
And hers is far from an isolated incident.
Since fall 2017, we and our partners have been tracking the treatment of pregnant women in ICE detention following a policy change by the Trump administration that eliminated the presumption of release for pregnant women and removed internal reporting requirements. ICE does not publicly report this information, but recent statements to the media note that 1,655 pregnant women were booked into ICE custody over a 10-month period between 2017-2018 and that 28 women may have miscarried in ICE custody over the past two years.
These and so many other cases point to one conclusion: Immigration detention poses life-threatening health and safety risks for the tens of thousands of people who are locked up across the country.
Just this month, we learned that ICE was force-feeding nine Indian men detained in El Paso, Texas, where they were protesting their prolonged detention and conditions at the facility where they are detained. These asylum seekers became so desperate they put their own bodies on the line to shed light on their mistreatment. This is only one of many such hunger strikes in immigration detention over several years.
These abuses are not only a problem with ICE. The Border Patrol operates a system of jails where migrants are detained, typically in the nation’s border regions. These jails are notoriously known as “hieleras,” or iceboxes, because of the frigid temperatures inside of the cells. The conditions in these cells are so unsafe that a lawsuit was filed in 2015 to force the agency to meet basic constitutional standards.
In just the past three months, there have been at least three deaths in Border Patrol jails, including the tragic deaths of 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo and 7-year-old Jakelin Caal. The deaths of these two children prompted the agency for the first time to issue a directive requiring public notification of in-custody deaths, and the commissioner for Customs and Border Protection acknowledged that these cells are no place for children.
Even recent reports by the DHS Office of Inspector General document deplorable conditions and continuing serious problems with medical care in ICE detention facilities. Additionally, the OIG has issued reports uncovering gross abuses in the contracting and inspections systems that are critically important for public and congressional oversight. These reports provide a framework for understanding the depth of dysfunction within ICE over its detention operations.
ICE repeatedly contends that its own inspections ensure adequate oversight and protect the safety and well-being of people in its custody. Based on these reports, and the countless incidents of death, abuse, and mistreatment of those in immigration detention, we know nothing could be further from the truth.
Despite these claims, the administration’s intent is clear: strip away the humanity and dignity of immigrants through hostile, anti-immigrant policies, like family separation and zero tolerance. Then lockup as many people as possible in immigration detention without access to counsel or family and community support and in such harsh conditions that they will simply abandon their legal claims.
The scope of this crisis can and should be measured in human terms.
During negotiations over the federal government shutdown, we learned that ICE was detaining over 48,000 people, well over the number permitted under its appropriated funding. We also know that DHS was raiding other federal accounts like FEMA to cover the costs of detaining more immigrants. Given what we know, this unchecked spending and expansion must end.
Abuses in detention are often chalked up to “one bad apple.” Recent cases of abuse; scathing reports about conditions, contracting, and inspections in immigration detention; and the blatant overspending of taxpayer dollars reveal pervasive problems and tell a different story. ICE is rotten to the core.
Victoria López, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU National Prison Project