Questions Swirl Around ICE’s ‘Inhumane’ Treatment of Pregnant People

Numerous reports suggest detaining pregnant immigrants in prison-like facilities poses dangerous health risks.

[Photo: A woman detained by ICE enters a cell]
"Where my sister was detained, a provider only came to the facility once a month," Izabel said. "When she said she needed more medical care, she was told to return to her cell, drink water, and take some Tylenol. They told her the same thing when she fainted in the facility." John Moore/Getty Images

On the heels of several advocacy groups filing requests for information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) regarding its new policy for detaining pregnant people, a family member of a formerly detained pregnant person told Rewire.News her sister was denied prenatal care in detention. 

Back in March, internal documents revealed ICE’s new directive, called “Identification and Monitoring of Pregnant Detainees”—though as Rewire.News reported, the policy appeared to have been in place before the official announcement. Under the policy, individual ICE agents are allowed to make a “case-by-case custody determination” when processing pregnant detainees, according to the HillICE officers are also to “treat pregnant detainees as they would any other, save for providing the necessary medical care and keeping a record of pregnant women in custody,” according to the Hill.

But numerous reports suggest detaining pregnant immigrants in prison-like facilities poses dangerous health risks. In September 2017, immigrant and human rights groups filed an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the DHS Office of Inspector General, documenting the harmful and dangerous conditions pregnant people face while in ICE custody. Those reports included women who suffered miscarriages in detention, experienced verbal and physical abuse, and endured serious delays in emergency care and prenatal treatment. 

Meanwhile, the American Immigration Council, in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Women’s Refugee Commission, filed requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act earlier this month, seeking more details on ICE’s policies, guidelines, or procedures “regarding the treatment of pregnant individuals in custody and any system used to track and monitor pregnant detainees.”  The request also asked for “the total number of pregnant detainees held in ICE custody, the total number of pregnant detainees who were deported from the United States directly from detention, and the number of times that detainees were transferred to external medical facilities for medical care associated with the pregnancy.”

Advocates are pushing for more information from ICE as new allegations of medical neglect surface. A woman named Izabel, whose last name is being withheld, says her pregnant sister was not given access to appropriate and necessary medical care while detained by federal immigration authorities last summer and, as a result, she feared miscarrying.

Last summer, Izabel’s younger sister, whose name is not being released to protect her identity, was detained at San Diego’s Otay Mesa Detention Center for six weeks while pregnant. Not only was she ripped away from her children on the outside, Izabel said, but her sister feared miscarrying while in detention, as she was denied prenatal care and proper nutrition.

According to Izabel, her sister is now free and has reunited with her husband and children, but while in detention in San Diego, other women told her sister that they miscarried in federal immigration custody. Miscarriages are incredibly common, with as many as 25 percent of pregnancies ending in miscarriage, but as a 2015 Rewire.News investigation found, “Prisons and jails are among the most dangerous places to be while pregnant.” As numerous reports show, people held in detention centers are often living in prison-like conditions. 

“Where my sister was detained, a provider only came to the facility once a month,” Izabel said. “When she said she needed more medical care, she was told to return to her cell, drink water, and take some Tylenol. They told her the same thing when she fainted in the facility.”

When asked to respond to Izabel’s allegations, a spokesperson from ICE repeated the agency’s new policy for detaining pregnant people, saying in a statement that the agency is “committed to treating all those in our custody in a safe, human and appropriate manner” and that it has a zero tolerance policy for any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior in its facilities.”

The ICE spokesperson said the agency follows the performance-based national detention standards and that every detained person is screened by ICE Health Service Corps medical providers to determine medical, dental, and mental health status within their first 12 hours in ICE custody. Following the initial screening,”detainees are referred to outside primary care doctors and specialists as needed,” according to ICE.

The spokesperson also clarified ICE’s policy for processing pregnant people: “All woman [sic] up to age 56 are screened for pregnancy shortly after being processed into the agency’s detention facilities. In cases where the intake screening results are in question, further lab tests will be ordered to confirm a negative or positive pregnancy result. In addition to pregnancy screenings at intake, ICE detention facilities provide onsite prenatal care and education, as well as remote access to specialists for pregnant women who remain in custody.”

However, Izabel’s story of her sister being denied prenatal care echoes others shared by pregnant individuals in ICE custody. The complaint filed last year by advocacy organizations highlighted several women’s stories of alleged medical neglect. In one, a woman was denied prenatal care at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, the same facility that detained Izabel’s sister.

According to the complaint:

Teresa, a 31-year-old Honduran woman from El Salvador, was taken into DHS custody on July 23, 2017, after she arrived at the San Ysidro Port of Entry on the U.S.-Mexico border. She spent about 24 hours in a holding cell at the Port of Entry and was then transferred to Otay Mesa Detention Center (OMDC), where she remains detained. Teresa was four months pregnant when she arrived to the United States but suffered a miscarriage in detention.

Teresa reports that she did not receive medical attention in the holding cell at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, despite notifying immigration officials that she was bleeding, that she was experiencing pain, and that she was four months pregnant. Early the next morning, while still in the holding cell, she notified officers again that she was experiencing extremely heavy blood flow, that she was pregnant and that she was very concerned about her health. She requested medical assistance on numerous occasions.

Teresa was transferred to OMDC, where she met with medical personnel. Her attorney intervened and demanded that she be taken to the hospital, which did not occur. Several days later, OMDC medical staff confirmed that she had miscarried.

ICE’s new policy for detaining pregnant people is just one in a series of ongoing attacks by the Trump administration on immigrant families. As Rewire.News reported on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions confirmed the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, a policy that has likely been in place for months. Since October, more than 700 children have reportedly been taken from their parents, including more than 100 children under age 4, the New York Times reported in April. 

The Trump administration also spent the month of April taking “aim at a previously uncontroversial set of child protection laws created to protect young people who cross into the United States without a parent or guardian, perhaps aided by smugglers,” the Marshall Project reported. Whether they migrate alone, with the help of others, or with their parents, immigrant children are quickly becoming a priority of the Trump administration and the end result is almost always family separation. That may come in the form of deportation or prolonged detainment in family detention or Office of Refugee Resettlement custody.  

Subjecting pregnant people to detention and tearing immigrant families apart have been called “cruel” policies by advocates, who say the Trump administration is needlessly attacking immigrant families.

Izabel told Rewire.News she wants people to understand that family separation in the immigration system is not a new concept, but simply part of how the U.S. immigration system operates. Izabel said her family, including her younger sister who was detained, was “devastated” to learn the United States is going to make a practice of separating children from their parents at the border.

“I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who saw the effect it had on my nieces when my sister was taken from them. I saw first-hand the trauma it created, the anxiety and depression they experienced. It was so difficult to watch and I can’t even imagine what that is like for children taken from their parents at the border, children and families that have already endured so much migrating with the hope of a better life in the United States,” Izabel said.

The Trump administration has placed ideologues in leadership roles in federal agencies, ushering the rhetoric and policy priorities of anti-choice and anti-immigrant movements into the immigration system. This includes blocking teen refugees from accessing abortion and possibly allowing individual ICE agents to determine who in detention accesses abortion care. There are also larger attacks on reproductive justice, including stripping undocumented parents of their right to parent their children, ignoring the sexual assaults of women in detention, and allegedly acting in retaliation against outspoken reproductive justice and immigration activists because of their advocacy efforts and work in their communities.
 “I just want people to know we can do better this. I understand we need to have immigration policies, but it’s important for citizens to pressure our government to create humane immigration laws that support the well-being of all people, that protect human rights and due process, and that do not separate families,” Izabel said. “Separating children from their parents is inhumane and traumatic. We are allowing our government to enact policies that do not reflect our country’s values. We need to ensure that immigrants and refugees are treated like human beings and that their families are not violated in such horrible ways.”