Carmen Puerto Diaz and her husband were at the end of their marriage interview with Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) when an officer walked in with handcuffs.
“I have an order to detain you,” Puerto, born in Honduras, recalls him saying before he took her purse away. USCIS had just validated her marriage to U.S. citizen Ricardo Loza, clearing the way for a possible green card to give her permanent residence in the United States.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, however, discovered Puerto had an old order of removal from when she entered the U.S. without documentation over a decade earlier.
Two things immediately crossed Puerto’s bewildered mind inside the USCIS office in Memphis, Tennessee: her husband and her unborn child. She told the ICE officer she had hypertension and needed her medication with her, which had been an arm’s length away in her purse.
“Don’t worry, we’re going to give you your medication,” she says he told her.
But they didn’t, said Puerto, at least not for the next two and half days as she was transferred between three separate ICE facilities. (ICE didn’t respond to a request for comment due to the government shutdown last week.)
Puerto, who is more than five months pregnant, said she was denied access to her medication, which she needs to take every twelve hours, even after pleading for it and experiencing palpitations, headaches, and dizziness.
“I was desperate to take my medicine so me and my baby could be OK,” Puerto, 33, said via an interpreter.
ICE was practically forbidden from even detaining pregnant women until President Donald Trump took office. It was instructed by the Obama administration in 2016 to only detain pregnant women in “extreme circumstances,” but the Trump administration loosened the restriction. It also allowed for the removal of “critical reporting procedures,” making it difficult to oversee the treatment of pregnant women in detainment.
“This seems to be a growing trend nationally,” said Johnna Main Bailey, Puerto’s attorney. “We received many responses from attorneys throughout the country voicing experiences with ICE detaining clients at interviews.”
When Puerto was 19 years old, she left Honduras in search of work in the U.S. without documentation. She was apprehended at the U.S. border before being released while awaiting her immigration hearing. Bailey said that she never received the order to appear because she had changed addresses and did not inform authorities.
Six years later, she met and married Loza.
“When we first got married, I didn’t marry my husband to get any immigration benefits from him. So it didn’t cross our minds [to validate our marriage],” said Puerto. “But when we were married, I wasn’t able to do a lot of things so after a long time, we decided we have to do the paperwork. We said, let’s do it.”
It was a two-year wait until they got a marriage interview at USCIS.
When Puerto was arrested on Jan. 16, Loza, who speaks English, was told by an officer that he would release Puerto if Loza brought her medical records. Loza called his wife’s doctor’s office as soon as they opened that morning and returned to the local ICE office with medical records documenting her “chronic hypertension” and listing her medication. But ICE refused to release her, Loza said.
Loza reached out to a local immigration attorneys office and retained Bailey, who said a supervisor at the local ICE office told her that he would forward Puerto’s medical records to West Tennessee Detention Facility, where Puerto was being transferred. The facility is run by CoreCivic, a private prison company that manages ICE detention facilities across the country.
When Puerto boarded the van that would take them to West Tennessee, she feared the worst.
“I was scared that I was never going to be able to see my husband again. I was worried that I didn’t know what was going to happen to me and my baby. So, I was really scared,” said Puerto, who oftentimes relied on detainees to tell her what was going on.
Once Puerto arrived at West Tennessee Detention Facility, she was still denied her medication. She told detention guards in English, “I need my medicine. I have my medicine in my purse.”
“I was really nervous but I believe I made myself understood,” she told The Daily Beast.
By the next morning, she spoke to her husband and told him she had missed two doses and was feeling dizzy and experiencing a headache and palpitations.
That night, Puerto said she cried. “I was not able to sleep. I had to be strong for the baby. They [fellow detainees] told me to be strong,” she said.
Bailey spoke to the ICE field office overseeing the facility through the office of Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and said she got a boilerplate about her pregnant client’s condition.
“He quoted standard guidelines about detainees receiving medical care, which we knew at that time, Carmen was not,” said Bailey.
It is still unclear why Puerto was denied her medication: ICE has a directive on housing pregnant detainees in custody in appropriate facilities, and CoreCivic has protocols in place for medical care.
“Carmen had her medication in her personal belongings that were confiscated and transferred to [West Tennessee Detention Facility] with her,” said Bailey. “It's a complete injustice involving some level of negligence and lack of oversight.”
A CoreCivic spokesperson did not comment about Puerto’s case, but said “all detainees undergo a full medical screening at time of intake.” But Puerto said she did not receive any.
Two days after Puerto was detained, Loza lost track of his wife—a detainee locator showing her whereabouts was not in operation due to the government shutdown. Puerto’s attorney, Bailey, guessed she would be sent to LaSalle Detention Facility, over 400 miles away in Louisiana, based on the knowledge that detainees are transferred there within 48 hours.
That’s also when going without medication would jeopardize both her and her baby’s health, Puerto’s doctor told her husband and lawyer. Left untreated, hypertension during pregnancy can negatively affect the health of both mother and baby during pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Any hypertensive condition can lead to stroke and complications like preeclampsia for the mother as well as fetal growth restrictions and placental abruption for the baby.
Puerto said before she boarded the bus to LaSalle, the medical staff at West Tennessee gave her a pill but did not know what it was.
On her seven-hour bus ride, she sat on metal seats with no seatbelts.
“I was holding myself so I wouldn’t fall,” she said.
Louisiana immigration lawyer Philip Hunter contacted an ICE officer at LaSalle to request medical parole for Puerto, but she was denied.
That night, however, Puerto was finally given back the medicine from her purse.
“I would never want to go through this experience again. I would never want to go through it again,” she said.
The next day, Saturday, she was released but may still be deported.
Bailey said that if Puerto had not been released, she is not sure she would have obtained appropriate medical treatment in Honduras.
“Moving back to Honduras, a country she has been away from for 14 years, without her husband would prove very difficult,” said Bailey.
Puerto is still shaken up by the experience, which could’ve cost her a child.
“I feel sad and I cry again when I think about it again,” she said. “I would not want to go through it again.”