Last week, a hideous allegation emerged in a complaint filed on behalf of immigrants detained at the privately operated Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in Georgia. In the complaint, nurse Dawn Wooten blew the whistle on “jarring medical neglect” she says she learned about while working at the facility, including an allegation that a government-contracted doctor repeatedly performed sterilizing procedures on women in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody without their knowledge or consent.
These allegations have an eerie familiarity: the U.S. has a long history of forcibly sterilizing Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. And the whistleblower complaint raises the concern that reproductive abuse is not just a part of our country’s past.
The issues are not limited to the allegations at the ICDC. The Trump administration’s hostility toward the reproductive freedom of immigrants in its custody has long been evident. In 2017, groups working with young immigrants discovered that the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which has custody over immigrants under age 18 who come to the country without parents, had instituted a policy of blocking pregnant young people from accessing abortion care and trying to coerce them to carry pregnancies to term against their will.
After learning of that anti-abortion policy, we sued on behalf of Jane Doe, a then 17-year-old Central American immigrant. Jane found out she was pregnant after being placed in a government-funded shelter, and immediately asked for an abortion. Federal officials responded by ordering the shelter to block her access to abortion care and forcing her to receive counseling at a religiously affiliated “crisis pregnancy center.”
Jane took the administration to court, fighting back to protect not only her own right to reproductive freedom, but the rights of a class of hundreds of other young immigrants like her who were also subject to the ORR’s anti-abortion policy. As a result of a protracted legal battle that went all the way up to the Supreme Court, Jane was able to receive the care she needed, and won a court order blocking ORR from obstructing all pregnant immigrant minors in its custody from making their own decisions about their bodies and their lives.
But the hostility against immigrants’ reproductive autonomy continued. In 2018, the Trump administration reversed an Obama-era policy that presumed pregnant people should not be detained. Now, ICE is making opaque, “case-by-case” decisions about whether a pregnant woman should be caged. In 2019, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties and ACLU of Texas Border Rights Center filed a series of administrative complaints to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) based on interviews with more than 100 people soon after their release from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), including Border Patrol, custody. One pregnant woman said she was repeatedly slammed against a chain link fence by a Border Patrol agent. Another said she experienced a miscarriage while detained in a Border Patrol facility for 12 days, but did not receive any hygienic products or medical care.
Numerous pregnant women detained by Border Patrol recounted being told by officers to get abortions, all while being held in crowded, unsanitary facilities with little access to food or water. Medical attention for these women was often delayed or denied, all while they endured verbal abuse. This neglect and mistreatment has devastating results: During the first two years of the Trump administration, the number of undocumented women who miscarried while in government detention nearly doubled.
In February 2019, a 24-year-old Honduran woman went into premature labor and delivered a stillborn child four days after being detained by ICE. This spring, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties and Jewish Family Service of San Diego filed a complaint to the DHS OIG on behalf of a pregnant woman who was forced to deliver a child in a Border Patrol hielera while standing and still wearing pants, after Border Patrol agents repeatedly denied her requests for medical attention. And these cases only represent the experiences of immigrants in detention that have thus far come to light.
The evidence is clear: Immigrants are routinely abused, silenced, traumatized, and even killed by the U.S. immigration detention system, and it has to stop. Irwin Detention Center must be shut down. And to protect all immigrants and the reproductive freedom of those in detention, we must defund ICE and CBP, dismantle the cruel immigrant detention system, and ensure that everyone has the ability to make their own reproductive health care decisions.
Brigitte Amiri, Deputy Director, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project