In September, Georgia nurse Dawn Wooten filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General alleging that the Irwin County U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility had conducted hysterectomies on immigrant women being detained in the United States without their informed consent.
Wooten also alleged that ICE facilities have not employed the necessary COVID-19 precautions to maintain the health and well-being of both migrants and staff.
Among Georgia ICE centers, there have been about 500 COVID-19 cases, resulting in three deaths from COVID-19 in one facility alone. Along with this seeming lack of COVID-19 consideration, the newest allegations of forced sterilizations further demonstrate ICE’s apparent disregard for the lives of those being detained. As the abuse of asylum seekers in ICE facilities becomes increasingly apparent, the need for accountability in U.S. immigration policy has never been more urgent.
ICE is currently structured, in many ways, to mirror the prison system. ICE frequently makes contracts with detention facilities to hold immigrants, even though there are alternative programs that could effectively house asylum seekers in less oppressive conditions. As Michelle Brané, senior director of the migrant rights and justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, noted, “Immigration detention is not criminal detention. … Legally, it is civil or administrative detention. The people being held in these facilities are not serving out some sentences.” As it stands, maintaining a prison model dehumanizes asylum seekers and seems to inevitably result in the abuse and mismanagement of innocent people.
Furthermore, privatized prison corporations, such as the detainment centers used by ICE, financially benefit from immigrant detainment, therefore establishing no incentive to release immigrants into green card or other path-to-citizenship programs. By structuring the immigration process parallel to the prison system, ICE reinforces the false notion that immigrants are inherently “illegal” or, having broken a law, are deserving of mistreatment or punishment.
It’s also important to note which groups are most affected by ICE detention and are thus further marginalized. Those held in ICE detention centers are disproportionately people of color immigrating from Mexico and Central American countries. In this way, ICE’s practices also become a form of symbolic violence against marginalized communities, ostensibly rationalizing systemic abuse.
A lack of protection and care for immigrants suggests that they have not “earned” the right to fair treatment. This racialized system thus allows doctors in ICE facilities to justify unnecessary medical procedures on these populations as punishment for seeking safety. The hysterectomies and sterilizations reportedly conducted in recent months can be seen, then, not as isolated injustices but rather as direct results of an inherently flawed and harmful system.
Given ICE’s long-reported history of malpractice, it is necessary that Congress passes HR 2415, or the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act of 2019, sponsored by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Rep. Adam Smith and Sen. Cory Booker. The bill was initially introduced to Congress by Smith in 2017 and reintroduced by Jayapal in 2019. If passed, the act will help establish a system of accountability for all ICE detention centers whereby immigrants’ rights and safety as asylum seekers would be ensured.
The Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act would require that the DHS no longer employ private prisons and county jails to hold immigrants, laying out a plan to phase them out over a three-year period. Under U.N. and U.S. law, asylum seekers have the right to seek refuge from persecution in their home countries, and HR 2415 would effectively hold the U.S. government accountable for abiding by both international and national human rights laws.
Furthermore, under the act, the DHS would be required to conduct randomized inspections to ensure the facilities meet the American Bar Association’s Civil Immigration Detention Standards. As critics such as Jayapal have noted, currently, it seems that ICE “has taken on a view that (it does) not need to maintain human rights.” Had HR 2415 been passed prior to the pandemic, the health and safety of hundreds of immigrants might have been better preserved.
Importantly, by improving humanitarian standards, the act seems to confront the problem of ascribing illegality to immigrants — suggesting that no person is illegal and that all must be guaranteed just treatment under the law. It establishes accountability, requiring probable cause for detainment past 48 hours, and prevents the detainment of primary caregivers — unless given reason to — in an effort to keep families together.
It is in the best interest of the United States to follow international law and hold itself accountable in ensuring human rights. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 29 in 2017, which barred state and local governments from expanding or entering new contracts with ICE. The federal government must now follow suit and stand for humane immigration policy.
Therefore, I urge the U.S. Congress to prioritize and pass the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act to uphold one of the fundamental values of our nation: that all humans are created equal.
Abbigale Berry is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying society and environment in the Rausser College of Natural Resources.