In April of this year, an undocumented woman went to what she thought was a routine check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As she headed to that check-in, she didn’t know that an immigration judge had previously ordered her deported.
At the check-in, Monica, which is a pseudonym, was arrested and sent to an immigrant detention center. At the time, she was four weeks pregnant.
ICE has a stated policy against detaining pregnant women except in extraordinary circumstances. But immigrants’ rights advocates say they believe the agency has quietly changed or eliminated that policy. The number of pregnant women like Monica who are held in detention centers has gone up significantly in the last few weeks, observers say–sometimes with lethal consequences.
When Monica was sent to the center in Washington state, officials there told her she would imminently be deported. One morning, after three weeks in detention, she began bleeding profusely. Immigration officers ignored her at first. But they finally took her to a hospital, where a doctor informed her that she had miscarried. Then they brought her back to the detention center again, where she was held until her family was able to pay $1,500 to bail her out.
The harrowing story was detailed in a sworn declaration Monica made to immigrants’ rights advocates for a report recently filed with ICE
Jennifer Elzea, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that the agency is “committed to ensuring the health, safety, and welfare of all those in our care.” But immigrants’ rights advocates are skeptical. And it’s not just because they believe that under the new administration more pregnant women are being put in detention and for greater lengths of time. Women in detention also have less access to medical care than those who are free, and the stress of being detained can often be a health risk for pregnant women and their unborn children.
Elzea also said women are screened for pregnancy after being put in ICE detention centers, and that pregnant women who are detained have access to prenatal care at detention centers. Immigrants' rights advocates say this care is not always adequate, and that at one facility, pregnant women must wait in line in 100-degree heat to get prenatal vitamins.
At the Dilley family detention center in Texas, there are currently upwards of 1600 undocumented women and children detained there, according to Katy Murdza, the advocacy coordinator for the Dilley Pro Bono Project, which represents detained women and children. Murdza told The Daily Beast that they only knew of one pregnant woman detained at Dilley in the months of June and July. But in early August, she said, that number rose dramatically. Starting early in that month, ICE began sending pregnant women to Dilley by the dozens. Over the course of approximately seven weeks, 30 pregnant women were newly detained there, according to Murdza.
“It seems like there was clearly some sort of change in their policy or procedure,” Murdza said. “The women were confused as well. They were saying that they had heard that pregnant women weren’t held for more than 24 hours, and suddenly they’re here for three weeks or more sometimes.”
An ICE spokesperson denied Murdza’s suggestion, saying the agency’s policy toward pregnant women hasn’t changed. But Murdza said that her group notified ICE, thinking it was a mistake and “didn’t receive a response.”
Katie Shepherd of the American Immigration Council, who co-authored the report on pregnant women in detention that includes Monica’s story, told The Daily Beast that the number of women having miscarriages in immigrant detention centers does appear to be increasing. Shepherd added that while conclusive data on miscarriages isn’t publicly available, her organization and others have been hearing more reports of women losing their pregnancies while detained.
“They’re not releasing them when they should be,” Shepherd said, “so women who have high-risk pregnancies or who already have a history of miscarriage are being held in detention, which by definition has limited access to medical services”
In one case––detailed in the report Shepherd co-authored––Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials put a Honduran woman in a holding cell for 24 hours after she came to the U.S. seeking asylum. That woman, named Teresa (again, a pseudonym) was four months pregnant at the time. While she was in the cell, she started bleeding heavily and asked for medical help. DHS moved her to a center Otay Mesa, California, where doctors confirmed she was pregnant. Despite her attorney’s pleas, Teresa wasn’t hospitalized. And after several days in detention, she miscarried.
According to the report, Teresa’s bleeding continued after her miscarriage. Detention center staff recently confiscated her medication, including acetaminophen to help her manage pain. As of this week, she is still detained.
Pregnant women were also detained under the Obama administration. But during those years, Shepherd said, “they would typically be released as soon as we notified ICE.” Under Trump, ICE has grown less responsive to requests for releases, which represents problems because of the medical risks that long detentions entail. Inside family detention centers women and children are often held in close quarters, with multiple families sometimes in one room.
“A lot of the little kids, you can tell they’re sick: pink eye, bronchitis, really bad coughs or colds, diarrhea,” said Murdza. “It’s a densely populated environment with a lot of different families, so a lot of the women have expressed to us concern about sickness spreading to them while they’re pregnant.”
ICE inherently recognized these risks when it put together it policy stating that it would release pregnant women except in extraordinary circumstances. That it’s drifted away from that approach, Shepherd said, is troubling.
“The fact that they’ve memorialized this policy in an ICE memo recognizes the inherent risks of detaining this vulnerable population,” she said, “which is why it’s so disturbing that we’re seeing ICE dishonor or violate this policy on a daily basis.”
Updated 12:41pm 9/28/17 for clarity.