Stop Violating Immigrant Women’s Reproductive Rights

Stop Violating Immigrant Women’s Reproductive Rights
U.S. border patrol agents routinely turn away asylum seekers, requiring them to wait in Mexico for their U.S. court hearing. (Lorie Shaull / Flickr)

A brave whistleblower recently reported that women immigrants at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center have been subjected to gynecological procedures without their knowledge or informed consent. The procedures allegedly ranged from forced sterilizations to hysterectomies—performed on women who neither needed nor wanted them. The facility where the reported violations took place is located at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga.—managed by private ICE contractor LaSalle Corrections.

In total, 19 women have spoken out that they were subject to medical abuse while they were detained there.

In response to the account, more than 170 members of Congress have called for an immediate inquiry into the alleged horrifying medical abuses.

Their response is critical, as the situation is dire—the Trump administration is launching a full-scale attack on these immigrant women. ICE has already deported six previous patients who complained about Dr. Mahendra Amin (known as “the uterus collector”), and seven others who made allegations have been told that they could soon be removed from the country, according to their lawyers.

Unfortunately, for thousands of women and girls, these reported violations are just a sampling of the government’s illegal practices of aggression and neglect in its treatment of women seeking to immigrate to the United States. 

Reproductive Injustice Against Immigrant Women Is Persistent

Importantly, this latest story of reproductive injustice should not be seen as separate from the government’s zealous anti-abortion activism. Since 2017, the ACLU has sued the Department of Health and Human Services on several occasions for denying detainees their legal right to an abortion. In one instance, then-director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Scott Lloyd refused to allow a teenaged rape victim to have an abortion, even though she threatened suicide if not permitted to terminate the pregnancy. 

In fact, Lloyd was one of the Trump administration’s most fervent anti-abortion crusaders. During his tenure, he went so far as to instruct his staff to track pregnancies and menstrual cycles of girls who requested pregnancy tests.

Overseeing the fate of tens of thousands of refugees, he reviewed weekly spreadsheets of the girls’ pregnancies or periods with the aim of delaying their departure from shelters until they were past the point when they could legally obtain an abortion. The spreadsheets contained detailed information about each teen or pre-teen, including the circumstances under which she had become pregnant. In most cases, the documents recorded that many of the girls had been raped.

Stop Violating Immigrant Women’s Reproductive Rights
A protest against Trump’s Muslim ban in front of the Supreme Court. (Geoff Livingston / Flickr)

Immigration and border patrol officials have committed well-documented acts of obstetric and gynecological abuse for years. Even before the current pandemic and the adoption of Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers have routinely turned away pregnant women seeking asylum, generally accusing them of seeking entry—only to ensure U.S. citizenship for their babies.


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Last February, CBP detained a pregnant Guatemalan asylum-seeker in medical distress, ignoring her pleas to be transported to the hospital. The officers instead took her to their Chula Vista, California border patrol facility, where she partially gave birth to the baby in her pants, clutching onto a garbage can.

Human rights organizations have documented dozens of accounts of immigrants receiving inadequate medical treatment, pregnant women and newborns held in custody beyond the time limits allowed by law, and inhumane conditions for those forced to give birth in custody.

Ironically, many of the women and girls facing these state-sponsored abuses seek refuge in the U.S. to escape severe gender-based acts of violence in their home countries. In June 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended asylum protections for victims of domestic or gang-related violence. During the same period, UN Women reported that domestic violence rates in northern Central America had affected 50 percent of women, and that the region’s femicide rate ranked among the highest in the world.

Meanwhile, under President Trump’s cynically named Migration Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico,” U.S. border patrol agents routinely turn away asylum seekers, requiring them to wait in Mexico for their U.S. court hearing. Over 60,000 such refugees have been turned away at the border, with approximately 25,000 still waiting for their court date.

Women and children have been languishing for months in squalid and dangerous border camps, rife with sexual abuse, kidnapping and torture. These conditions are exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. MPP has come under fire from immigrant advocacy groups who sued the administration last year.

In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals blocked the policy, finding it in violation of law and international treaties. On appeal, the Supreme Court stayed this ruling and on Monday agreed to hear the administration’s case, which will not be scheduled until 2021.

Traveling to the U.S. border only exacerbates the danger for migrants, as incidents of rape and sexual assault are rampant along the journey. On the border, victims of such attacks number in the thousands. Given the precarity of their situations, most women and girls do not report these crimes, which go uninvestigated and unprosecuted.

And for those who do make it across the border and find themselves in U.S. government hands, this cycle of violence may go from bad to worse.

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About and

Jane Marcus-Delgado is Professor of Political Science and Global Affairs at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York and author of The Politics of Abortion in Latin America: Public Debates, Private Lives.
Joan Caivano is Senior Advisor at the Inter-American Dialogue, a center for policy analysis and exchange on Western Hemisphere affairs based in Washington, DC.