Immigrant Detention is a Danger to Pregnant Individuals

Author: Trevor Johnson, November 2020.

“Long term goals that can better protect the rights of all immigrants, detainees and asylum seekers include: 1) closure of detentions centers 2) barring the opening of new centers 3) dismantling of xenophobic agencies such as ICE. A failure to address what has become the status quo, will enable the perpetual dehumanization and abuse of pregnant individuals and immigrants alike.”


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Immigrant Detention is a Danger to Pregnant Individuals

October 25, 2020

Immigration policy in the U.S. has long been weaponized, in order to serve as a racist tool which marks people as “undesirable,” “less than,” and undeserving of humane treatment. Pregnant women, and those individuals who are pregnant but do not identify as women, are a population that is targeted aggressively while detained in the abusive immigration system. The detention of pregnant immigrants is not only ruinous to the health of both the parent and the child, but is also discordant with basic human rights and reproductive autonomy. Significant changes in how pregnant    people are treated while in detention are compulsory if basic rights and dignity are to be respected. 

The detention of pregnant people by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Custom and Border Protection (CBP) is not required by law and yet, under the Trump administration, has increased by over 50%. This is due to DHS compliance with Executive Order 13768, Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States. Pregnant individuals were previously granted presumed release for the sake of their health and well-being, but are now considered a threat to public safety based on subjective, racist perceptions of government officials. 

The lack of care, mistreatment, and outright denial of pregnancy care by ICE and and CBP is the norm. Detainees are subject to physical and verbal abuse, kept in freezing conditions without beds, not provided hygiene products or adequate food, and have been denied prenatal care and medical treatment for severe bleeding, abdominal pain, and other serious symptoms. The risk of such abuse is compounded by the length of detention, which can be months. Furthermore, the Government Accountability Office reported that between 2016 and 2018, 22% of ICE facilities detaining pregnant individuals did not have medical personnel,  which increases the likelihood of deteriorating health for the mother and child. Agents’ dismissal of pleas for care, lack of on-site medical staff, and reliance on offsite pregnancy care contributed to nearly 60 miscarriages in 2019. The stress and trauma of migration, seeking asylum, and maneuvering the legal system are made worse by conditions that accompany detention. Depression, anxiety, and isolation can have serious health impacts on the mother while increasing risks to the fetus. Representatives from ICE, such as Deputy Executive of Removal Operations Director Philip Miller, have argued that appropriate care was provided in cases where women had severe physical symptoms, including heavy bleeding, and that these women were driven – shackled and sitting upright—in the back of patrol vehicles, to healthcare facilities. When pregnant individuals in detention are provided medical treatment or taken to a hospital to give birth, the abuse and dehumanization continue. They are frequently shackled at the hands, feet and across the belly while in transport, as well as while giving birth and in postpartum. The United Nations Committee Against Torture has expressed concern about the cruel and degrading use of shackles on pregnant detainees before, during, and after labor, arguing that it does not conform to international standards. 

However, the guidelines that detention centers are supposed to follow lack specific healthcare information and are woefully inconsistent. The majority of detention centers are not even contractually bound to follow ICE’s own national detention standards. This hardly matters however, as ICE fails to enforce existing standards and impunity is ubiquitous. Hundreds of NGOs, as well as reproductive, civil, and human rights organizations from the ACLU and the Women’s Refugee Commission, to the American Academy of Family Physicians, have filed complaints with the DHS to express opposition to its tortuous policies and lack of protective standards in general.  

Due to the lack of transparency within ICE and CBP, it is difficult to assess the scope of abuse and the needs of pregnant individual in detention. One thing is clear however: the policies currently in place (see also Migrant Protection Protocols, Metering, Asylum Cooperative Agreements, Third Country Transit Bar) are not only failing to make the United States safer, but are also harming and killing innocent people. 

In the short-term, the detention and expulsion of pregnant and post-partum individuals must end immediately. Independent, third-party monitoring and oversight must be allowed and required at all DHS and private detention facilities. DHS has shown it is incapable and unwilling to treat people with dignity; in light of this malignant neglect, it should not be permitted to investigate or monitor itself. Accountability and transparency are vital for the safety of all detainees, especially pregnant women, the lack thereof has allowed for abuses of power and the  violation of human rights. Independent oversight is necessary to guarantee compliance with domestic and international law. Long term goals that can better protect the rights of all immigrants, detainees and asylum seekers include: 1) closure of detentions centers 2) barring the opening of new centers 3) dismantling of xenophobic agencies such as ICE. A failure to address what has become the status quo, will enable the perpetual dehumanization and abuse of pregnant individuals and immigrants alike. 

Trevor Johnson is pursuing a Master’s Degree at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs. He worked in the immigration field and resides near the U.S./Mexico border.

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