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Honduran woman's pregnancy ends in stillbirth at U.S. detention center

Honduran woman's pregnancy ends in stillbirth at U.S. detention center
Vehicles leave the Port Isabel Detention Center, which holds detainees of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Fresnos, Texas. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

A 24-year-old woman went into premature labor and delivered a stillborn baby while she was in custody at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in South Texas last week, officials said.

The woman, a migrant from Honduras whose identity the agency withheld, was arrested near Hidalgo, Texas, on Feb. 18. She was six months pregnant at the time. Four days later, she went into labor and delivered a premature and unresponsive baby boy. Doctors pronounced the newborn dead soon after.

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In a statement, officials said the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, doesn't count stillbirths as in-custody deaths; rather, they're recorded in their own category, along with miscarriages. An ICE spokesperson said stillbirths are very rare, but the announcement drew swift public condemnation from advocates and migrant rights groups.

"A woman losing her child is yet another horrific example of DHS's inability to treat migrants with the dignity and respect they deserve," Erika Andiola, the advocacy chief at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, said in a statement to the Washington Post. "Pregnant migrant women should not be locked up. Keeping them in jail is a Trump administration policy. It's inhumane and we can't let it stand."

It follows the February death of a 45-year-old Mexican national who died in Border Patrol custody in McAllen, Texas, after twice seeking medical attention, and after the December deaths of two detained migrant children, which led the CBP chief to commit to conducting health checks on all minors in the agency's custody.

The stillbirth will probably raise new questions about ICE's policy of detaining pregnant women, which changed from a "presumption of release for all pregnant detainees" after an executive order from President Trump directed the agency "to enforce the immigration laws of the United States against all removable aliens."

The new policy, the agency says, is to determine whether to detain pregnant women on a "case-by-case" basis. In this case, the ICE spokesperson said, the woman was scheduled for a "humanitarian release" from Port Isabel Detention Center, but she went into labor while being processed. She'll now be released from custody sometime Monday.

"This news is tragic, and it comes on the heels of two recent deaths of children in DHS custody at the border, government reports of deplorable conditions in ICE contract facilities, and a long history of problems with medical services in immigration detention," Omar Jadwat, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, told the Post. "It's long past time for a comprehensive investigation into immigration detention conditions, and real accountability for the rampant lapses and abuses in this system."

From October 2017 through August, ICE detained 1,655 pregnant women, according to the most recent data the agency made available. Over that same period, 18 women may have experienced a miscarriage just prior to or while in ICE custody.

ICE policy states that its detention facilities provide onsite prenatal care and remote access to specialists for pregnant women who are in custody. In the "FAQs" section of its website, ICE responds to the foreboding question, "Isn't detaining pregnant women a human rights abuse?" by answering that, "ICE exercises its civil detention authority consistent with the law, and all detainees receive necessary and appropriate health services, food, and care."

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