“We don’t detain pregnant women.” That’s the initial response that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency told a reporter last year when asked about the number of pregnant detainees in immigration detention centers. But a new investigation by Fusion found that ICE has detained hundreds of pregnant women even after the agency issued a policy change in 2010.
At least 559 pregnant women were detained in just six detention facilities — ICE operates about 250 facilities nationwide, so the number of pregnant detainees could be significantly higher. According to Fusion’s review of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the “average time spent in detention for the 559 pregnant women detained since 2012 was just four days shorter than the average time for all people held in detention.” That amounts to about a month.
According to a 2010 ICE agency policy, pregnant women should not be detained “absent extraordinary circumstances or the requirements of mandatory detention.” That is, pregnant women should be released unless they pose a safety risk, have a criminal record, have gang ties, or are repeat immigration law offenders.
Many detainees are held in country jails leased by federal immigration officials, with some in the 18 states that have enacted laws prohibiting or restricting shackling of pregnant prisoners. But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that “the other 32 states have no laws protecting women from these practices.” In those states, immigrants charged with criminal violations like illegally re-entering the country can still be shackled to their hospital beds during child labor.
Pregnant women complained of being underfed and deprived of medical treatment. Fusion found that one woman suffered a miscarriage during her detention, though an independent doctor claimed that her kind of pregnancy would have resulted in a miscarriage anyway. ICE policy restricts the use of restraints on women in active labor or delivery, requiring approval from on-site medical authority. One undocumented immigrant, Juana Villegas, was shackled during child labor because officials believed that it would prevent her from fleeing federal immigration custody. She later got a breast infection because she was unable to pump milk.
Previous reports suggest immigration officials are not just neglecting women during pregnancy and childbirth. Female detainees bear the brunt of unsanitary conditions in detention centers. A Human Rights Watch report found that females often have to reuse the same sanitary pads for their menstrual periods, are denied gynecological exams, and receive inadequate care during pregnancy.
Other detainees have reported inhumane conditions like maggot-infested food and rooms that are too cold. Advocates claim that immigration officials use such tactics to pressure immigrants into agreeing to voluntary deportation rather than waiting for a court hearing.