UPDATE Jan. 8, 11 a.m.: After denying that detainee Mariamo Ajagbe miscarried while in the El Paso detention, late Tuesday Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a statement acknowledging that Mariamo in fact did suffer from a condition that an independent doctor confirmed, always results in a miscarriage. ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarriapa said in a statement, "there were no other complications of this nature or miscarriages last year at the El Paso Processing Center" and that ICE believes "her condition occurred independently of circumstances of her confinement."
As part of an on-going investigation, Fusion has learned that 13 pregnant women were detained in an immigration detention center in El Paso between August and November of 2013.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) says pregnant women
shouldn’t be detained in their facilities “absent extraordinary circumstances,” and advocates say inadequate medical care in detention can pose a threat to the lives of women and their unborn children.
We first learned about pregnant detainees in El Paso from an undocumented activist, Santiago Garcia-Leco, who infiltrated the El Paso Processing Center last month. He was shocked by the number of pregnant women he learned were held in the female wing of the facility and decided to contact the media.
The El Paso center typically interns between 120 and 150 female detainees at a time and is one of over 250 immigration detention centers across the country. The El Paso facility is the only center Fusion has so far investigated for pregnant women. ICE says they don’t keep numbers on how many pregnant women are detained nationally.
The 13 pregnant women detained in the four-month period were caught while attempting to cross the southern border, ICE told us. While some were released on parole the same day, others were kept a few days or weeks, the agency said. ICE was not able to provide a range or average stay for pregnant detainees.
The agency will only name the identity of one of the 13 women: Lucia Chilel Ramirez was in her third trimester when released from ICE custody last month, after being held for 110 days.
The agency’s policy says that detaining pregnant or nursing women is low on their priority list. The directive states that resources should be spent on locking up people whose cases are top priority, like those who have formerly broken immigration laws, are threats to public safety, or have been convicted of crimes.
In order to detain pregnant women, agents require special permission from field office directors. The agency uses alternative forms of monitoring, like ankle bracelets, for low-priority detainees. Advocates, including the Women’s Refugee Commission, are concerned that ICE facilities just aren’t set up to handle the medical and nutritional needs of pregnant women and prolonged detention could result in harm to the mother or her unborn child.
ICE Denies Miscarriage
A detainee from Nigeria named Mariamo Ajagbe spoke with us from the El Paso facility phone last month. She said she miscarried in mid-August in the detention center while three months pregnant. When we asked ICE, they told us a miscarriage did not occur.
“There has not been a miscarriage in the El Paso Processing Center between August and November,” ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa told us.
Mariamo, who is still detained, says that ICE agents brought her to the very doctors who broke the news to her.
“When I was having pains, I went to medical and they were the ones to show me that the baby wasn’t growing,” Mariamo told us, from a phone in the detention center.
Mariamo’s attorney, Gabriela Contreras, provided Fusion with medical documents outlining the patient’s diagnosis of a “blighted ovum” and "fetal demise."
Jane Porcelan M.D., a doctor of obstetrics and gynecology, reviewed Mariamo’s medical records on our behalf and confirmed that a blighted ovum, which is usually caused by a chromosomal abnormality, is always followed by a miscarriage. According to Porcelan, the condition occurs when a fertilized egg attaches itself to a woman’s uterine wall but an embryo fails to develop.
“A blighted ovum never results in a regular pregnancy,” Porcelan told us.
Mariamo’s attorney says that the stress of being detained could have contributed to her client’s contested miscarriage.
“My client miscarried in the detention center and there’s no doubt about that,” Contreras told us by phone. “Her miscarriage was a combination of factors, probably primarily biological, but also perhaps related to the terrible conditions, the stress of detention, the stress of what she had gone through to get to the United States.”
When asked if a blighted ovum could be the result of stress or environmental conditions, Porcelan told us it was a possibility, but not commonplace.
When we brought the finding to ICE’s attention, they told us they were bound by privacy concerns and could not discuss a detainee’s medical history.
Who to Detain, Who to Release
ICE spokesperson Nicole Navas told us last month that they don’t detain pregnant women, unless they are a threat to public safety or meet the requirements for mandatory detention.
But it’s unclear this is what is happening on the ground. ICE admits to knowing Lucia Chilel Ramirez was pregnant when she was detained for three months. Carmen Guadalupe Rivas-Torres says she was detained for two months while ICE knew she was pregnant.
Both women were released shortly after their cases garnered attention from advocates, blogs and Fusion. But ICE has offered very little explanation for why the two were suddenly released.
ICE's spokesperson would not confirm that any of the 13 pregnant women held in its facilities during those months met the requirement for mandatory detention or were a threat to public safety. These latest cases raise concerns that ICE isn't following its own guidelines concerning the detention of pregnant women.
A few days before Carmen’s release, ICE’s spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa told us in a written statement that Carmen “was apprehended after illegally re-entering the United States at Sunland Park, N.M., after being formally deported just two months prior.” As an “illegal re-entrant” Carmen “[falls] in line with ICE’s priorities,” the statement read.
Just four days later, however, Carmen was released suddenly from custody on Christmas Eve. The agency won’t tell us what changed or why she was no longer a priority for detention. ICE will only tell us that her case was re-evaluated, as cases often are, and that the field office director decided to release her.
Carmen believes she was released because of the attention her case attracted.
“They told me I was causing problems for them by complaining to someone on the outside,” she told us in Spanish, calling from her home in New Mexico, days after her release.
Carmen’s attorney, Elizabeth Ferrell, says in addition to Fusion’s coverage, Carmen’s “medical complications likely contributed to her release.”
“We’d have liked her out sooner, but we’re thankful to ICE for letting her out before Christmas,” Ferrell said.
The last time we spoke with Carmen from detention, she told us she had lost 12 pounds because she was severely underfed. ICE would not confirm or deny the alleged weight loss, but the agency did tell us that pregnant women can get extra snacks with permission of the in-house doctors. Carmen told us she had such permission, but was denied extra food on multiple occasions, and was not receiving enough calories to sustain her unborn child.
“I’m worried about the health of my child if I keep losing weight so quickly,” she told us, calling from a facility phone in the last days of her detention.
Since Carmen’s release, she has been reunited with her husband and five-year-old daughter in Santa Fe. She says she is eating much more and is no longer losing weight. Carmen is set to appear in court next week to make her case to stay in the country. She doesn’t believe El Paso Processing Center is exceptional in its detention of pregnant women.
“It’s not just El Paso, when I was in an Arizona center briefly, there was another pregnant women there,” Carmen said. “I don’t think they should be keeping women during pregnancy, I can tell you it is very difficult to be in there.”
Fusion's Cristina Costantini was a guest on America with Jorge Ramos to discuss this story, see the full segment below:
Do you know a pregnant detainee? Email the reporter, Cristina Costantini, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cristina is an Emmy-nominated reporter and producer. She recently won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for her documentary Death by Fentanyl. She attended Yale University and has reported for the New Haven Independent, ABC News, Univision, The Huffington Post, and Fusion.