We Must Protect Expectant Mothers in Immigrant Detention Centers, Now More Than Ever

“Every pregnant woman deserves compassionate care,” writes pediatrician Dr. Arzuaga “Immigration officials are not providing it.” Pictured: A June 2018 rally against family separation in Los Angeles. (Alicia Kay / Feminist Majority Foundation)

Last week, as our nation was transfixed by the growing number of COVID-19 tragedies, a woman gave birth in a border patrol station. While being held in a detention facility, she began experiencing labor pains and cried out, but the nearby border patrol agent ignored her.

Thirty minutes later, alone and clutching the side of a trash can, she gave birth to her newborn with her pants still on. 

We are living in a moment that has put extraordinary pressure on our health system, health care workers and people who have conditions that put them at greater risk should they become ill. Our fears about our health are at an all-time high, and vulnerable people—like pregnant women and their newborns—need extra care and attention. 

As a neonatologist, I care for babies born in difficult circumstances every day. But in my 12 years of being a doctor, the only other time I have seen such horrific treatment of a pregnant woman has been in our prison system—which like immigration detention, dehumanizes laboring mothers and places them and their babies at risk of death or serious complications.

In their failure to act responsibly and with compassion, immigration officials put both this mother’s and her baby’s life at risk.  

This story is unfortunately not the first time a pregnant woman has become the victim of our government’s callous immigration policies.

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For example, pregnant women are supposed to be exempt from the Remain in Mexico policy—but instead, many have been sent by U.S. officials to dangerous towns where they have little or even no access to health care. In fact, there was a report of one woman’s water breaking as she was being sent back across the border. 

The Trump administration also ended an Obama-era policy that protected pregnant women from being held in detention by immigration officials in order to better assure their health and safety. The results of this decision have been devastating: Not only has there been a massive increase in pregnant women in ICE detention, but the number of miscarriages while in detention nearly doubled during the first two years of Trump’s presidency alone. 

The lack of adequate health care in immigration detention goes beyond just pregnancy. ICE detention centers have failed routine medical inspections. Border Patrol has infamously refused CDC guidance and declined to provide flu vaccines to migrants who were in their custody even after flu-related deaths occured in their facilities.

Now, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, immigration officials remain ill-equipped to provide necessary lifesaving medical care to families. Ignoring public health experts’ calls for strict social distancing, they continue to hold people in crowded unsanitary conditions, refuse to provide detained people with masks or soap and continue to quarantine people in large groups, going against recommended CDC policy once again.

Immigration officials going in and out of these facilities have tested positive for COVID-19 infection, placing detained people at risk of becoming infected themselves. All of this means a coronavirus outbreak in these detention facilities is inevitable. Such an outbreak would further tax an already strained health care system, putting the lives of everyone in the community at risk.

We Must Protect Expectant Mothers in Immigrant Detention Centers, Now More Than Ever
A March 2018 protest at Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, Calif. (Alicia Kay / Feminist Majority Foundation)

Pregnant women are at higher risk than others to get seriously ill from infections. The plight of expectant mothers being forced to endure detention in the current unsafe conditions brings to mind a premature baby I took care of many years ago. Her mother, while still pregnant, had succumbed to a case of pneumonia not unlike what patients with coronavirus are experiencing. She was on a breathing machine, needing a very high amount of oxygen and, like current coronavirus victims, had to be positioned lying on her pregnant belly for the breathing machine to pump enough oxygen to her lungs.

Because of how sick she was, she went into labor three months early and gave birth to her premature daughter—while still on a breathing machine in a coma. For expectant mothers being held in detention, contracting the coronavirus puts them and their babies at risk of this same fate.

Congressional leaders are starting to realize that something is going wrong. Now is the time to force the hand of immigration agencies and establish independent oversight mechanisms that protect the lives of families in their care.

This pandemic has brought the stark realization that the health and well-being of everyone in our society is closely intertwined, and we need to look after one another. Every pregnant woman deserves compassionate care, and stories like the woman being forced to give birth in her pants make clear that immigration officials are not providing it.

Congress must step in to protect the health and safety of these women, and ensure that they and their babies are not put at risk any longer. 

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-movingDuring this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.


Dr Arzuaga is a board certified pediatrician and newborn intensivist. She is a co-founder of the nonpartisan physician activist group, Doctors for Camp Closure, that opposes the inhumane detention of refugees and asylum seekers in the United States.