Pregnant Women in Immigration Detention Say They Have Suffered Miscarriages, Were Denied Medical Care, Shackled Around the Stomach, and Mistreated

BuzzFeed News; Getty Images

Two weeks after arriving in the US seeking asylum, E, 23, found herself in a detention cell in San Luis, Arizona, bleeding profusely and begging for help from staff at the facility. She was four months pregnant and felt like she was losing her baby. She had come to the US from El Salvador after finding out she was pregnant, in the hopes of raising her son in a safer home.

“An official arrived and they said it was not a hospital and they weren’t doctors. They wouldn’t look after me,” she told BuzzFeed News, speaking by phone from another detention center, Otay Mesa in San Diego. “I realized I was losing my son. It was his life that I was bleeding out. I was staining everything. I spent about eight days just lying down. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t do anything. I started crying and crying and crying.”

Stuck in detention and having lost her baby, E says she wouldn’t have come to the US seeking a safer life if she’d known what would happen. She asked that her full name not to be used out of fear of repercussions while in detention and for her family back home.

“My soul aches that there are many pregnant women coming who could lose their babies like I did and that they will do nothing to help them,” she said.

About a week after speaking with BuzzFeed News, E gave up her fight for asylum, accepted voluntary departure, and was deported back to El Salvador.

In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions publicly introduced the “zero tolerance” immigration policy that has led to children being separated from their parents at the border, sparked national outrage, and triggered an executive order from President Trump. While the national focus has been on family separations, another Department of Homeland Security policy quietly introduced by the Trump administration five months earlier has devastated women fleeing violence in their home countries: the detention of pregnant women not yet in their third trimester.

Before that directive, which the Trump administration implemented in December before announcing it in March, ICE was under an Obama administration–era directive not to detain pregnant women except in extreme circumstances or in relatively rare cases of expedited deportation.

The new ICE directive states that women are not to be held into their third trimester and that ICE is responsible for “ensuring pregnant detainees receive appropriate medical care including effectuating transfers to facilities that are able to provide appropriate medical treatment.”

But BuzzFeed News has found evidence that that directive is not being carried out. Instead, women in immigration detention are often denied adequate medical care, even when in dire need of it, are shackled around the stomach while being transported between facilities, and have been physically and psychologically mistreated.

In interviews and written affidavits, E and four other women who’ve been in ICE detention and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody while pregnant told of being ignored when they were obviously miscarrying, described their CBP and ICE-contracted jailers as unwilling or unable to respond to medical emergencies, and recounted an incident of physical abuse from CBP officers who knew they were dealing with a pregnant woman. Those descriptions were backed by interviews with five legal aid workers, four medical workers, and two advocates who work with ICE detainees.

The incidents were not limited to a single detention center. Three medical workers and five legal aid workers who spoke to BuzzFeed News all said they had seen — and some had documented — cases of pregnant women not receiving or being denied medical care in more than six different detention centers in California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Manoj Govindaiah, the director of family detention services for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), said that the majority of the pregnant women they work with in the ICE-run Karnes family detention center in Texas have told RAICES that ICE staff promised to bring them to off-site medical professionals but never did. Lauren Connell, a pro-bono attorney who also does work at Karnes, confirmed that she has had to fight for some of her pregnant clients to receive the medical care they ask for.

Sera Bonds, the founder and executive director of Circle of Health International, and Leah Little, the group’s chief operations officer, who keeps records of the women the group sees, said the pregnant women often say they did not receive medical care while in detention. Both women recounted caring for a woman in their clinic in McAllen, Texas, who, in her eighth month of pregnancy, fell directly onto her belly but still was not taken to a hospital.

In written testimonies — taken by RAICES for their records and provided to BuzzFeed News, and signed by the women under “penalty of perjury,” with the names redacted — two pregnant women held at the Karnes center complained of not being provided with adequate medical care for their pregnancies. On top of this, one said she was given clothes that were so small for her pregnant belly they gave her welts and “pain in [her] uterus”, while the other said she underwent repeated X-rays despite this being against the Food and Drug Administration’s recommendations and against CBP (but not ICE’s) policies for pregnant women. “I saw on the machine that [it said] pregnant women should not have an X-ray,” she wrote.

In an email, ICE reiterated that it follows the policy on detaining pregnant women as written on its website, noting that ICE makes the decision to keep people in custody on a “case-by-case basis” based on criminal records, risk of flight, “any known medical conditions,” and whether she or he “poses a potential threat to public safety.” It added that private contractors that operate the facilities where pregnant women are housed also are required to adhere to those standards, but it declined to comment on specific facilities.

“All detainees, determined to be pregnant, are provided appropriate education, pre-natal care, and post-natal care,” the statement said. “Such care includes referral to a physician specializing in high-risk pregnancies when high-risk pregnancy is indicated.”

CBP referred BuzzFeed News to its national standards, and DHS did not individually respond to a request for comment.

Amanda Sluss Gilchrist, the director of public affairs for CoreCivic, the private prison group that owns the Otay Mesa detention facility where E was held, told BuzzFeed News in a statement that CoreCivic staff “do not make medical or mental health treatment determinations,” and that ICE and their 500 officers assigned to the detention facility are “solely responsible for contracting, staffing and oversight of any medical and mental health services.” Gilchrist added that detainees “have daily access to sign up for medical attention.”

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SOURCE: Buzzfeed News, Ema O’Connor and Nidhi Prakash