When Emma arrived at the U.S.-Texas border with her 5-year-old son, the El Salvador woman was seven weeks pregnant, bleeding and missing fingernails from being raped and tortured on her journey through Mexico.
After being processed through Customs and Border Patrol, Emma (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) was sent to a doctor who gave her a few pills for her high risk pregnancy, and then dropped back off at the CBP processing center to sleep on a thin mattress in a cold room, surrounded by crying children. She couldn't eat, since the smell of food made her want to throw up. She told civil rights advocates that she didn't want to have a baby, especially one through rape.
"All of these experiences have been very traumatizing for me," she said. "It is very stressful for me to be in detention while going through all these difficult emotions, and not feeling well."
Emma is one of the hundreds of undocumented pregnant women who are sent to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center after crossing the border — even though ICE policy forbids detention of pregnant women except under "extraordinary circumstances."
Seven major immigrant rights organizations filed a complaint
with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Tuesday on behalf of these women, urging the agency to investigate why so many pregnant women are being thrown into prison-like facilities after crossing the border. It's particularly concerning, they add, in light of President Donald Trump's executive orders to "dramatically increase" immigration enforcement efforts along the border.
"These broad enforcement directives raise serious questions about the future of ICE policies on the detention of pregnant women and the agency's ability to properly provide medical care while pregnant women are in custody," the complaint reads.
San Antonio's RAICES, an immigrant advocacy and legal aid group, joined the ACLU, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, the Women's Refugee Commission, the American Immigration Council, and Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in filing the formal complaint.
In an August 2016 memo
, ICE Executive Associate Director Thomas Homan ordered that "absent extraordinary circumstances or the requirement of mandatory detention, pregnant women will generally not be detained by
ICE." If a pregnant woman does have to be detained, he adds, ICE must regularly re-evaluate whether that detention is really necessary, and offer the woman "appropriate prenatal care."
According to the complaint, ICE hasn't consistently followed any of these rules since November 2016. And the number of detained women continues to grow.
The complaint cites that immigration arrests of women have increased by 35 percent in the first four months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016 — and in those first four months of 2017, ICE detained some 292 pregnant women.
"Standards for the treatment of pregnant women carry according to the type of facility where women are detained," they allege.
In detailed anecdotes, the complaint outlines the stories of ten different women who they say have been denied their rights while in ICE detention center. Like Emma's story, many feature women who were already traumatized by sexual abuse or other physical violence before crossing into the U.S. Many also have what doctors identified as "high-risk" pregnancies, but received little to no prenatal care. Two women miscarried while in detention and, despite experiencing serious bleeding, headaches, and weight loss, were ignored by ICE agents.
"It is very difficult for me to be locked up like this. I have been crying a lot and my head always hurts," wrote one pregnant Honduran woman in August. "I have not told the doctor about most of this because he has not asked me how I am feeling the three times I have visited him."