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The Devastating Consequences of Inadequate Medical Care Within ICE Detention

By Katya Kolluri

While Attorney General Jeff Sessions publicly introduced the “zero tolerance” immigration policy in May that caused children to be separated from their families, another Department of Homeland Security policy was quietly instituted five months earlier. In December, Trump signed off on a new directive which allows the detention of pregnant women, except those in their third trimester of pregnancy.

One of the directive’s listed responsibilities is: “Ensuring pregnant detainees receive appropriate medical care including effectuating transfers to facilities that are able to provide  appropriate medical treatment”.

However, numerous pregnant detainees claimed this directive was not being followed. A recent journalistic investigation by BuzzFeed revealed that pregnant women held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody under the Trump Administration were abused and denied medical care during their first few weeks of detention, with almost all of them miscarrying while still in custody. In addition, pregnant women were shackled tightly around the stomach when being transported between facilities, and were physically and psychologically abused while in detention. Five women who were pregnant while in ICE and CBP custody described jailers being unresponsive to their medical emergencies including while they were clearly miscarrying, and physical abuse from CBP officers who knew that they were pregnant. In the report, one woman claimed she had been pushed onto the floor by officers even after her telling them that she was pregnant. The officers were quoted as having said that they did not believe the woman, and that it was not their problem.

In a congressional hearing in May, before it was revealed that immigration officials were separating immigrant families, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Kristjen Nielsen spoke to Congress about the care ICE provides for pregnant detainees. Nielsen stated that detainees receive prenatal care, specialists, counseling, separate housing, and transportation to appointments. The women that Buzzfeed spoke to however, stated that they received either no services or only one of the services, and always with extreme delay.

According to medical professionals, the women who are pregnant during their journey to the border usually arrive in a high-risk pregnancy state. The women travel for weeks, usually without sufficient food and water and are unable to urinate when needed. During these journeys, they are often subjected to emotionally traumatic incidents like sexual violence or separation from their families, adding to the already heavy loads of stress. A combination of this and the potential to contract illnesses when entering the new facility results in these pregnant women having highly specialized medical and psychological needs.

The lawyers and medical workers who work with detainees claim that that the treatment of pregnant women before Trump took office was significantly different. In the past, women were typically released from CBP custody quickly, as the previous practice was to free pregnant women on bond or on supervised release. These women were protected by an Obama-era ICE policy that required that agents only detain expecting mothers under “extraordinary” circumstances.

Interestingly, a clear increase in the detention of pregnant women was seen well before before the Trump administration issued its policy change in December. The stated reason for this change is that these women are unlikely to return for their deportation hearings. The unstated reason, however, is most likely the fear of these unborn children becoming U.S. citizens.

Months after the physical effects of their miscarriages, these women are still experiencing psychological and emotional repercussions, while still not receiving adequate medical care. This cruel, inhumane practice by law enforcement should be brought to light and addressed immediately.