Lawmakers Seek to Limit ‘Shackling’ of Pregnant Immigrants

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The practice of “shackling” — handcuffing and restraining pregnant women, even while they are giving birth — has been restricted by federal immigration officials since 2011.


But the guidelines get fuzzier when women are being held in the custody of local authorities on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Only 18 states have laws restricting shackling. So when ICE officials ask local police to hold a suspected immigration offender, it’s possible that person might be subjected to this type of treatment, even if federal authorities have adopted standards that say to avoid it.


A pair of senators want to make the guidelines clearer. Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) drafted an amendment in June would put the onus on ICE to make sure local police aren’t shackling women who are being held temporarily for the agency except in “extraordinary circumstances.” Those circumstances include when a detainee might be at risk to hurt herself or staff, or have a credible chance at escape.

Murray and Crapo initially drafted the amendment as part of an immigration reform bill in the Senate, but with that legislation stalled, Sen. Murray is angling to have the language included in an omnibus spending bill that could be released this week.

“No one detained by the United States government should ever be treated inhumanely, especially a pregnant woman,” Murray said in a statement to Fusion.

Beyond shackling, pregnant women in the custody of federal immigration authorities face unique challenges that can result in nightmarish scenarios for the women and their unborn babies.


An ongoing Fusion investigation found that 13 pregnant women had been held in an El Paso immigration detention center between August and November of last year.

One woman interviewed by Fusion, a Nigerian immigrant, suffered a miscarriage while in detention at the El Paso facility.


Another pregnant detainee, Carmen Guadalupe Rivas-Torres, said she lost 12 pounds during her two-month stint in the El Paso center.

“I’m worried about the health of my child if I keep losing weight so quickly,” she told Fusion in December, days before she was released from custody.


As a policy, ICE does not comment on pending legislation. But spokesperson Gillian Christensen issued a statement about pregnant detainees, saying “ICE's Civil Enforcement Priorities memo directs agency personnel not to detain pregnant or nursing women, unless required by law or based on other extraordinary circumstances.”

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

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