Editorial: Reported surgeries on detained migrant women must be investigated

Dawn Wooten stands with protesters carrying signs outside a Georgia detention center.
Dawn Wooten, left, a whistleblower and nurse, speaks at a Sept. 15 news conference at Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center.
(Jeff Amy / Associated Press)

A nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, which houses migrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, filed a whistlerblower complaint last month alleging that some female detainees were subjected to unnecessary hysterectomies, in some cases without them fully understanding what was going on.

We won’t jump to any conclusions about her complaint. The doctor at the center of the allegations has denied that he did anything contrary to medical ethics or standard medical behavior, and ICE said that only two hysterectomies had been performed on women detained at the center since 2018.

The waters also are muddied a bit by conflicting reports on the number of women who may have fallen victim to unnecessary and unwanted medical procedures, not necessarily limited to hysterectomies. There clearly needs to be thorough investigations by disinterested parties to figure out whether, indeed, a doctor working on behalf of the United States government has sterilized women or performed other possibly unnecessary procedures on them without their full consent.


But the investigations and accountability must not stop there. The federal immigration detention system — mostly an archipelago of privately run prisons or contracted space in local jails — is a humanitarian disaster and an international disgrace. And it is the largest immigration detention system in the world, with some 50,000 men, women and children held at any given time. (Other countries house more refugees, but the U.S. leads in locking up people seeking permission to immigrate.)

There have been reports of children targeted for sexual abuse by staff or other detainees — more than 4,000 such complaints from 2014 to 2018 — as well as similar abuses of women. Food preparation has violated basic health standards. A gay man sued over an alleged beating at a detention center in Colorado, and immigrant rights advocates reported that some 30 detainees in a west Texas facility were beaten, pepper-sprayed, refused medical care and subjected to racist taunts.

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Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been particularly virulent in prisons and detention centers. Late last month, a federal judge ordered that the population at the 1,940-bed ICE detention center in Adelanto, Calif., be reduced even further after an outbreak there worsened and 81 of the remaining 784 detainees tested positive for the coronavirus.

These are unconscionable practices, yet health and safety problems in detention facilities are not new. A PBS “Frontline” documentary laid out some of them in 2011, and there have been several government reports since then documenting problems within the system.

Late in his second term, President Obama began a process to end Washington’s reliance on private contractors to house detained migrants and federal prisoners. The Trump administration not only reversed that initiative, but also has ramped up efforts to incarcerate migrants — many of whom have not been charged with a crime. Oftentimes, the migrants are held just for having the gall to use the congressionally authorized asylum system to seek protection from repression in their own countries.


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Oct. 23, 2020

Some people whom ICE wants to deport should be detained, such as those who pose a threat to public safety and those who the government has an individualized reason to believe are a flight risk. But the government — and the Trump administration in particular — uses detention as a deterrent to potential immigrants, the most notorious example being when it began charging parents caught crossing the border with a misdemeanor as a pretext for jailing them separately from their children, who were forced into foster care or other protective placements. The message: See what happens if you dare come to the border and try to exercise your rights under U.S. and international asylum laws?

The thing is, the vast majority of those being held in detention centers do not need to be there. The government has other, less costly options. It is especially heinous to imprison people who have not been charged with a crime, and who are contesting in civil immigration courts the government’s order to leave the country. It is especially atrocious that children are treated this way. But the disgrace moves into even darker waters with allegations of forced sterilizations of women and other unwanted medical procedures.

We’d like to argue that this nation is better than this, is beyond this kind of inhumane behavior. But we can’t. As long as Americans know this kind of behavior is going on in their names and do not demand changes, then, well, this is who we are — a society that ignores the unnecessary imprisonment and abuse of women, children and men often guilty of little more than dreaming of becoming Americans.