A 24-year-old Honduran woman in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) delivered a stillborn child at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Texas on Friday.
According to a joint statement Monday from ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the woman was apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol near Hildago, Texas on February 18. At the time, she told agents she was six months pregnant. While in Border Patrol custody, she passed two medical screenings and was cleared for release on February 21.
The next day, however, while being processed for release, the woman “began complaining of abdominal discomfort” and went into premature labor at 27 weeks pregnant. ICE Health Service Corps transported both mother and child to a nearby hospital where the infant was pronounced dead. The woman remains in ICE custody, awaiting medical release.
Just a few years ago, it was ICE protocol not to detain pregnant immigrants unless “extraordinary circumstances” existed. A 2016 policy was implemented based upon general consensus that incarceration places mental and medical health stresses on a pregnant individual, and detention centers are often ill-equipped to properly serve their needs.
In 2017, however, acting ICE Director Thomas Homan reversed this policy to comply with President Trump’s executive order to implement a stricter enforcement of immigration law and end the policy of “catch-and-release,” which allowed immigrants to live in the United States while they await their appearance in immigration court. Pregnant individuals are now released by ICE only on a case-by-case basis. According to an ICE fact sheet, the agency does not detain pregnant immigrants in their third trimester, which begins at 28 weeks. The Honduran woman who experienced a stillbirth at Port Isabel was in her 27th week of her pregnancy.
When reached by ThinkProgress for comment on what the “extraordinary circumstance” was that allowed a woman so near her third trimester to be detained, ICE provided the same joint statement released Monday.
The 2017 policy reversal notably removed essential reporting requirements for detention oversight, making it difficult to accurately track how pregnant immigrants are treated in detention.
“This would have included information on when a pregnant woman came into custody, what type of medical treatment was she being given to a woman and also what sub-offices were in charge of keeping tabs on this,” Victoria López, senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told ThinkProgress. “Those reporting requirements were eliminated and were really important for public accountability.”
“Detention is not a suitable place for a woman to receive medical care,” she added. “In the context of what we continue to learn about ICE and their failures to track and be held responsible for their medical neglect, this case just continues to beg the question of why ICE continues to operate in this fashion.”
In 2011, ICE created detention standards that outlined how women and pregnant individuals are to be treated while in custody. According to the manual, which has been updated over time, “A pregnant detainee in custody shall have access to pregnancy services including routine or specialized prenatal care, pregnancy testing, comprehensive counseling and assistance, postpartum follow up, lactation services and abortion services.”
CBP, which usually is the first agency to come into contact and house immigrants at the border, does not have the same standard.
Despite the clear guidelines of medical care for pregnant immigrants held in ICE detention facilities, multiple women have come forward with reports of miscarriages while in custody.
Responding to DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s claim that pregnant individuals in ICE custody are provided with prenatal care, separate housing, specialists, counseling, and offsite appointments if necessary, Rubia Mabel Morales Alfaro, a 28-year-old who was in ICE custody from around Dec. 23, 2017 to March 15, 2018, told BuzzFeed News: “It’s a lie. They didn’t give me anything. If they had had that, I would not have lost my son. I don’t understand why they won’t take care of pregnant women.”
In a complaint filed by the ACLU and other immigrant advocacy groups shortly after the Trump administration reversed course on their policy of not detaining pregnant immigrants, 10 immigrant women — some of whom experienced miscarriages — described their harrowing experiences of being pregnant while in ICE custody. Their testimony shows a troubling pattern of ICE officials repeatedly denying release or proper medical care to pregnant individuals.
Sara, a 24-year-old woman from Honduras, fled to the United States with her 8-year-old daughter after being raped. When she arrived on August 17, 2017, she informed CBP officers that she was around seven weeks pregnant. Her pregnancy was confirmed at a medical screening at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. Despite informing ICE of her pregnancy herself, she was released only after her attorney also notified the agency.
“In places like Dilley we are seeing one new pregnant woman a day,” Katie Shepherd, who does legal advocacy for asylum-seeking women at the American Immigration Council, one of the agencies that filed the complaint with the ACLU, told ThinkProgress. “Dilley is the largest concentration of detained pregnant women in the country because it is a family detention facility. Most of these women are not in their third trimester, although it does happen sometimes.”
Emma, a woman from El Salvador, became pregnant after being raped and tortured in Mexico en route to the United States. She arrived in the country with her 5-year-old daughter and told CBP officers she was 7 weeks pregnant and bleeding. Emma was taken to the hospital by car, but was returned to a CBP processing center.
“I wanted to explain to the immigration officer who processed me about my rape and show him that my fingernails were missing [as part of the torture inflicted on her] but he said, ‘No, don’t tell me anything. You all say the same thing’,” Emma told attorneys. “I was taken back to the border, where we slept in the cold on very thin mattresses. Most people were given only aluminum blankets but I was given a real one. I still could not sleep, however, because there were so many children crying. I could not eat because the smell of food makes me want to vomit.”
Over just the last two years, 22 immigrants have died in ICE detention centers alone. This does not include the highly publicized deaths of Jakelin Caal Maquin and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, two young indigenous children from Guatemala who died in CBP custody last December, or the death of Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez, the 20-year-old Guatemalan young woman who was shot in the head by a Border Patrol agent last spring.
In their statement this week, ICE and CBP were careful to clarify that “a stillbirth is not considered an in-custody death.”