ICE’s Pattern Of Abuse: From Forced Hysterectomies To Sexual Assault
“We are a nation made strong by people like you: people who travelled long distances, overcame great obstacles and made tremendous sacrifices, all to provide a better life for themselves and their families.”
–Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presiding over a naturalization ceremony.
Monsters are real, and they’re apparently running U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Border Patrol (CBP) under President Donald Trump. It is a living horror story, one playing out in real-time under the auspices of a government agency that has become less and less transparent. And as difficult as it is to sift through, we owe the people dehumanized while seeking the protection of our own country the debt of understanding the truth. Given the dark turn in reality with the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, this road’s ending is bleak indeed.
And as bad as we thought it was, it’s much, much worse, and not only for children. The September 24, 2020, House Oversight Committee Report found that poor medical care led to deaths of migrants in the custody of Trump’s ICE, with officials allegedly falsifying records to hide the deaths, according to Buzzfeed. Hamed Aleaziz writes:
“The report also frequently cited in its findings a memo obtained by BuzzFeed News that revealed a whistleblower’s complaint alleging that care at several facilities overseen by ICE was so dire, it resulted in two preventable surgeries, including an 8-year-old boy who had to have part of his forehead removed, and contributed to four deaths.”
This House Oversight Committee Report comes on the heels of the whistleblower complaint from Dawn Wooten, a nurse at an ICE facility in Irwin County, Georgia who alleged Dr. Mahendra Amin performed medical procedures on detained women, apparently without consent, let alone medically-required informed consent. He performed so many hysterectomies, he was dubbed “the uterus collector” by the women. Says Wooten, interviewed by Jacob Soboroff of NBC News:
WATCH: I spoke with the whistleblower, nurse Dawn Wooten, who made the complaint with @ProjectSouth and the @GovAcctProj to the DHS IG about a high number of hysterectomies.
“I had a detainee who asked me,” she said, “what is he doing, collecting all of our uteruses?” pic.twitter.com/lW2iiQI5Ge
— Jacob Soboroff (@jacobsoboroff) September 15, 2020
Wooten told Chris Hayes that many of the women didn’t even know why they had a hysterectomy:
ICE whistleblower alleges mass hysterectomies performed on migrant women:
“One lady … she said, ‘What is he? Is he the uterus collector? Does he collect uteruses?’ And I asked her what did she mean. She said, ‘Everybody that I’ve talked to has had a hysterectomy.’” pic.twitter.com/7b3UyyNC6A
— All In with Chris Hayes (@allinwithchris) September 16, 2020
Amin was party to a $520,000 settlement in 2015 with the United States and Georgia, who alleged he, along with other physicians, defrauded Medicare and Medicaid. They admitted no liability but entered into the civil agreement. Amin is not a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist.
While ICE said the claims were not true, with Dr. Ava Rivera “vehemently denying” “experimental treatments” on women, it does seem to conform with other heart-wrenching allegations of physical, sexual, and medical abuse against detainees in ICE custody. Nonetheless, Rivera says:
“ICE’s mission is to protect the homeland and to swiftly and quickly remove people from the country; the health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities, any assertion or claim to the contrary is false and intentionally misleading.”
Indeed, ICE does “swiftly and quickly” remove people from the country. Just ask the star witness against ICE in a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse in the El Paso facility–that is if you can find her. Fearing retaliation for her complaint, after she filed a petition to be freed while the investigation proceeded, the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s office (DHS) reversed its request to delay her deportation. ICE deported her. Within hours, she was sent back to Mexico, where she faces possible reprisal from the drug cartels she tried to escape by coming to the US.
According to Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) in an interview with Rachel Maddow, the sexual abuse witness is not alone in her deportation; some of the women whose organs were removed without their consent were deported. At least 17 to 18 women who have attorneys were given hysterectomies, often with the pretext of having ovarian cysts drained. An estimated 86% of detained people don’t have representation, so the real number of women subjected to this medical abuse is not known, as the attorneys learned how common it was once the initial complaint surfaced.
Andrew Free, an immigration lawyer working with others to determine how widespread this practice was, told the Associated Press:
“The indication is there’s a systemic lack of truly informed and legally valid consent to perform procedures that could ultimately result — intentionally or unintentionally — in sterilization.”
These charges of medical mutilation have long echoes. With recent data showing a shocking lack of knowledge about the Holocaust in people aged 18-39, the ongoing allegations about the horrific treatment of people in ICE detention might seem new, outlandish, perhaps difficult to believe. And yet they are none of those things; human history is riddled with stories of this type of depravity, with all forms of abuse on an institutional scale, including the forced sterilization of “undesirable” populations, and not only abroad. The eugenics program in California in the early 20th century actually inspired Hitler.
We are, by no means, at the top of this incredibly dangerous, incredibly slippery slope. Under Trump, ICE has opened an additional 40 detainment centers as of April 2020, and the warehousing of humans is ghoulishly profitable. The system has more than doubled from housing about 20,000 detainees per day at ICE’s inception in 2003 to up 56,000 now, with plans to increase that number to 60,000. Throughout the Trump administration, from his initial doubletalk of creating a Muslim registry to citing internment camps to justify such a thing, to family separation, to reports of terrible conditions, to the various reported forms of abuse, and now to this report of possible forced sterilization and deaths by medical neglect, apparently concealed by facilities, bit by bit we march toward what should be unthinkable.
From the House Oversight Committee Report:
“Even though DHS’s own internal reports found that egregious medical deficiencies and negligence led to the deaths of multiple detainees and poor treatment for many others, the Trump Administration has continued to reward the companies that manage these facilities with lucrative contracts.“
Atrocities all start somewhere, and we’re long past the starting point. The alleged abuses against detainees in government in government custody are chilling and far too familiar for anyone with a passing knowledge of history. Let’s review the nightmare of Trump’s ICE.
Medical, physical and psychological abuse in Trump’s ICE
The alleged forced sterilizations brought to light by Dawn Wooten are not isolated events of medical abuse by ICE facilities. The House Oversight Committee Report, initiated under the leadership of the late Congressman Elijah Cummings, with the work continued by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), says:
“Documents obtained by the Committee, including ICE and contractor audit documents, identify glaring deficiencies in the medical care provided to detainees at facilities operated by for-profit contractors. According to these internal documents, detainees in these facilities often do not receive critical treatment or face delays, and many facilities lack sufficient medical staff and fail to provide necessary care to detainees with chronic medical conditions.”
In 2018, the DHS Office of the Inspector General found violations that “pose significant health and safety risks at” the privately-run Adelanto ICE Processing Center, including a significant number of nooses in cells, consisting of braided bedsheets. While there were some benign uses for the hanging sheets, like providing privacy, one detainee noted:
“I’ve seen a few attempted suicides using the braided sheets by the vents and then the guards laugh at them and call them ‘suicide failures’ once they are back from medical.”
The hanging sheets violate ICE rules, which did not bother the facility, despite the suicide of a 32 year-old-man at the center in March of 2017. From the report:
“In the months after this suicide, ICE compliance reports documented at least three suicide attempts by hanging at Adelanto, two of which specifically used bedsheets. Media reports based on 911 call logs indicate at least four other suicide attempts at the center from December 2016 to July 2017. In total, these reports represent at least seven suicide attempts at the Adelanto Center from December 2016 to October 2017. Nationwide, self-inflicted strangulation accounts for 4 of the 20 detainee deaths reported between October 2016 to July 2018, according to ICE news releases.” [endnotes omitted]
The report says instead of doing face-to-face checks on detainees in segregation, observers witnessed medical professionals merely stamping their names on the forms without any actual contact. For the few stops with contact, no translator was provided for non-English speakers. There were long waitlists for medical appointments, which were often canceled, and detainees could wait weeks or months for medical attention.
While ICE regulations require full health screenings within 12 hours of detention, a mumps outbreak hit nearly 200 detainees and employees in Texas facilities in 2019. There were 931 cases of mumps among detainees over 19 states from September 2018-August 2019. The MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella, is readily available.
From the House Oversight Committee Report:
“At ICE’s Port Isabel Detention Center in Texas, a detainee reportedly remained in medical quarantine for nine days with facial swelling before doctors diagnosed him with mumps. By that time, the pain had migrated to his groin, and he had permanently lost hearing in one ear.”
Though it’s required that detainees have access to dental care, the observers found that routine care was not provided, with the facility waiting out the time detainees were there to avoid providing care. According to the records, no detainees received cleanings in four years; no fillings had been done in four years, with one detainee losing multiple teeth. Instead, the dentist suggested extractions. From the report:
“During our interviews, a center dentist stated that he only provides ‘palliative care’ and does not have time to complete cleanings or fillings. The dentist dismissed the necessity of fillings if patients commit to brushing and flossing. Floss is only available through detainee commissary accounts, but the dentist suggested detainees could use string from their socks to floss if they were dedicated to dental hygiene.”
This is but one ICE facility. From an April 2020 report from the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and the National Immigrant Justice Center:
- “We observed understaffing and cost-cutting measures in medical units which appeared dangerously unprepared for emergencies, posing danger to the health of people in detention even under ordinary circumstances;
- “We heard stories of immigrants’ lack of access to proper hygiene and witnessed unsanitary conditions in living units, many of which contained beds, dining, and restroom facilities for up to nearly 100 people all in one room.
- “Asylum seekers described virtually impossible odds for receiving release from detention on parole, an important legal mechanism ICE should be more eager to deploy to draw down its detention population in the face of a health crisis.”
The ACLU joint report notes that the Trump Administration has contracted with private prisons whose contracts were terminated by prior administrations for poor conditions. Eighty-one percent of detainees are housed in private prisons. With remote locations, detainees have far less access to legal representation or outside medical assistance.
Additionally, the report found extremely limited access to mental healthcare. At least 39 people died in ICE custody under Trump, and 12 of those deaths were suicides.
Lack of attention to medical emergencies in detention may also have cost lives, as confirmed by the House Oversight Committee Report. Just one case from the ACLU joint report:t:
“The cursory Detainee Death Report for Roberto Rodriguez Espinoza, who died on September 10, 2019, showed that it took more than six hours after a guard at the McHenry County Adult Correctional Facility reported to a nurse that Rodriguez Espinoza displayed symptoms of what turned out to be a fatal subdural hematoma, or bleeding in his brain, for the nurse to contact a physician. The physician ordered an immediate transfer to a hospital. After transfer to two hospitals unable to care for Rodriguez Espinoza due to the severity of his condition, he arrived at a third hospital more than 16 hours after the onset of his symptoms, where he was found to have “irreversible loss of all brain function.” Two medical experts consulted by BuzzFeed News agreed he should have immediately been hospitalized and that the delay likely contributed to his death.” [endnotes omitted]
Abuse of Women’s health in Trump’s ICE
The silence of the self-deemed “pro-life” Republican party on the treatment of people, particularly women, in detention loudly contradicts that label. Trump enacted a policy of incarcerating pregnant asylum seekers in their first and second trimesters. The Obama-Biden Administration presumptively released pregnant women, and only pregnant women who posed a serious threat were kept in detention.
As of March of 2019, 28 women suffered miscarriages in ICE custody, almost twice the rate of miscarriage before Trump took over. In early 2018, Rubia Morales, a pregnant woman seeking asylum from El Salvador, asked guards for medical attention when she started to cramp and bleed. She alleges she received a cursory look from a nurse, and the bleeding and cramping continued for five more days until she collapsed and miscarried. She was told medical intervention may have saved the pregnancy.
A 23-year old woman seeking asylum miscarried at 4 months at a facility in Arizona. She told Buzzfeed:
“An official arrived and they said it was not a hospital and they weren’t doctors. They wouldn’t look after me. I realized I was losing my son. It was his life that I was bleeding out. I was staining everything. I spent about eight days just lying down. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t do anything. I started crying and crying and crying.”
She was eventually deported back to El Salvador. Nonetheless, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen testified before the House that pregnant detainees received separate housing, and full medical care, including access to specialists. She claimed, “They are not only given adequate care in facilities, but it is much better care than when they are living in the shadows.”
Instead, Buzzfeed found:
“..women in immigration detention are often denied adequate medical care, even when in dire need of it, are shackled around the stomach while being transported between facilities, and have been physically and psychologically mistreated.”
And while the whistleblower complaint alleges involuntary sterilization, women and girls were also denied access to abortion in ICE custody. A 17-year old rape survivor was prevented from undergoing an abortion by an anti-bodily autonomy Trump appointee. He had rejected every application for abortion that came before him. Thanks to a temporary injunction, the girl did obtain her abortion, and an appeals court confirmed her right to abortion access. But obtaining reproductive healthcare for undocumented women, in and out of custody, remains difficult.
Menstruation is yet another way by which detainees are dehumanized by the Trump Administration, with period supplies treated like rewards or favors. A lawsuit contesting the appalling conditions in which Trump’s border patrol detained children alleged that girls were provided one pad or one tampon per day. Using the same tampon for more than 8-12 hours can lead to infection or toxic shock syndrome; extended use of pads can also lead to infections and skin rashes.
Moments like these require unrelenting truthtelling. We take pride in being reader-funded. If you like our work, support our journalism.
Sexual abuse against detainees in Trump’s ICE
In August, detainees held at a facility in El Paso, Texas alleged that guards used camera “blind spots” to sexually assault and harass them at a privately-run facility. According to ProPublica, in 2018, the most recently available data, there were 374 sexual abuse complaints filed by detainees; 48 were founded, 29 were still under investigation and there is no mention of the remainder.
In a lawsuit filed in May 2020, a former detainee held at a private processing center in Houston alleges she and two other women were segregated from the other female detainees and then brutally raped. According to her lawsuit, the rape resulted in a pregnancy. ProPublica reports the privately-owned company denied the claim as “slanderous.”
Noting that members of the LGBTQ+ community are 97 times more likely to be sexually abused in ICE custody, in January 2020 Congressman Mike Quigley (D-IL), Vice Chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus and a founding Member of the Transgender Equality Task Force, along with 40 members of Congress, sent a letter to ICE demanding the release of all trans detainees. This move followed the in-custody deaths of two trans women, Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez and Johana Medina León. Quigley said:
“Immigrants who have faced fear and violence in their pursuit of a new life in the United States should not be confronted with more fear and threats of violence when they arrive at our borders. Unfortunately, too often, that is exactly what many transgender immigrants face when placed in ICE detention facilities. Trans men and women experience a higher threat of sexual violence and are too frequently placed in solitary confinement. If ICE cannot provide appropriate and humane accommodations for these migrants, they must release them from detention. No one else should have to lose their lives because of ICE’s cruel mismanagement.”
In a hearing in 2019 on the Trump Administration’s family separation policy, Rep. Ted Deutch, (D-FL) pointed out that in the prior 4 years, children in ICE custody alleged more than 4,500 instances of sexual assault. A review of facilities housing minors in 2018 found poor record-keeping made it difficult to evaluate the 761 incidents of sexual abuse reported June-January. While most allegations involved other minors, with 43 involving staff, another report noted a lack of proof of safety checks, with 39 of 40 facilities failing “to include the required checklists to note their use of video monitoring, security alarms and secured doors and windows.”Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
Covid-19 mismanagement in Trump’s ICE
At the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the Trump Administration ordered immigration courts to remove their COVID-19 posters outlining safety measures. While we now know on February 7, 2020, Trump told famed journalist Bob Woodward that he wanted to downplay the seriousness of the virus, despite already understanding it was airborne and deadlier than the flu, Trump’s Administration refused to order immigration courts to close in March, with the LA Times reporting on March 18 about a coalition who called for such a closure:
“In an open letter, the judges and lawyers groups said the Trump administration has told them that the spread of COVID-19 was insufficient and not based on transparent science enough to warrant wide closure.”
According to PBS, as of August 11, 2020, 4444 ICE detainees were positive for COVID-19, a leap from the 3917 ICE detainees reported by the humanitarian group International Rescue Commission, who retrieved the data from ICE’s site on August 3. The House Oversight Committee Report published September 24, 2020, cites 6,000 positive cases, and points to poor sanitary conditions in private facilities and bad management of infectious disease as an issue:
“These persistent deficiencies could aggravate the spread of coronavirus in DHS facilities. ICE has confirmed more than 6,000 detainees and 45 ICE staff have been infected with coronavirus at over 95 detention facilities. Information obtained by the Committee shows that as of mid-July 2020, more than 600 GEO Group and CoreCivic employees working in at least 29 facilities also tested positive.”
According to ICE, as of September 21, 634 detainees were positive and “currently in ICE custody.” So where did all those COVID-19 positive migrants go in the time between those dates? Likely deported, with 593 probable deportation flights since February, more than 140 since the humanitarian group International Rescue Committee retrieved the 3917 number from ICE’s site.
ICE whistleblower Dr. Scott Allen told NPR, the CDC guidelines ICE claimed to follow were not sufficient: “The fact is, in the real world, use of those guidelines has been associated with failure.”
Given the current shifting nature of the guidelines, including the CDC’s recent retraction of the statement that the virus is airborne, as confirmed by Trump in February, and travels further than 6 feet, Allen had a point. Conditions in detention are crowded, there are allegations there is not enough sanitizer or protective gear, and yet ICE has thus far refused to release significant numbers of detainees at risk from this deadly pandemic.
ICE released data on testing and cases in June, but the data were spotty, apparently reflected only a few facilities, and half of the people tested up to June 4 were positive. As of September 22, 2020, three detainees had officially died of COVID-19 in ICE custody; notes PBS, when it comes to deaths, ICE only counts those of people who die while still in custody. It doesn’t add in people who contracted COVID-19 and then died post-release.
According to the ACLU, in fiscal year 2020, ending September 30, as of September 21, 20 people have died in ICE custody, the deadliest year since 2004 and third-deadliest year for detainees ever. By the beginning of August, the number of detainees who died in ICE custody was already twice that of FY2019. The reason for this spike in deaths is not clear but logically, it would seem that undercounting COVID fatalities could play a part.
The Rantt Rundown
When does tragedy cross the line into atrocity? Do we need to be on the atrocity side of the line to find out?
Are we already here?
People detained by ICE are vulnerable, are at the mercy of an organization that has demonstrated very little care for their well-being. We’ve heard allegations of families permanently separated; of forced sterilizations; sexual abuse; lack of adequate medical care; and questionable conditions during a deadly pandemic. And all the time, Trump ratchets up his rhetoric against immigrants, with the DOJ even creating an office dedicated to stripping naturalized citizens of their citizenship.
Meanwhile, as the House Oversight Committee found, while private companies secure enormous, outrageously lucrative contracts to detain migrants at taxpayer expense, they seem reluctant to disgorge any of that money for the care they are legally required to supply. The individual stories in the Report are soul-flaying, each with the common denominator of calculated indifference to human suffering.
History tells us none of this ends well. History tells us when you allow an increasingly-authoritarian regime to abuse the vulnerable without consequence, without recourse for the victims, that regime grows like a slime-mold, devouring all that surrounds it.
We have but one means of recourse. We have a single way to advocate for the people abused in ICE custody, and the people who, given time, will be. We must vote in a Congress dedicated to real immigration reform, and vote out a regime whose callous disregard for the people in its care reads like a dress rehearsal for something even more sinister.