Immigration authorities aren’t supposed to shackle pregnant women during childbirth “absent extraordinary circumstances.” One senator is doing her best to make sure the government is following the law.
In a series of letters obtained by Fusion, the deputy director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is in charge of immigration enforcement, tells Sen. Patty Murray that the agency doesn’t have much information about how many pregnant women they’re detaining or where.
Daniel H. Ragsdale told the senator that his agency has “database limitations” which render him unable to provide “facility specific information” regarding pregnant detainees. After Murray requested detailed data for all facilities, Ragsdale said there were 97 positive pregnancy tests within a limited segment of facilities in the last year, and he was unable to give any information about how many pregnant women saw doctors before or after childbirth.
For years, the agency routinely forced undocumented pregnant women like Juana Villegas, a mother arrested on immigration-related charges, to give birth while cuffed to to their hospital beds. The practice — which is condemned by doctors, advocates, and even Stephen Colbert as cruel and unsafe — is now against the agency’s official policy in most cases.
And in January, Murray passed an amendment to an appropriations bill, further restricting the use of shackling by any other entity holding pregnant mothers on behalf of the agency.
In a statement to Fusion, Murray said the lack of basic information regarding the agency’s compliance with the law was “troubling.”
She has good reason to worry. Earlier this year Fusion found at least 559 pregnant women locked up in just six of the agency’s 250+ detention facilities since 2012, despite the fact that the agency says this too should only happen in “extraordinary circumstances.” Instead, the agency says they try to release pregnant women on parole so that they can wait for their immigration hearing outside of detention.
About half of the 34,000 detainees housed every night by ICE are housed in facilities that follow 2011 detention guidelines which strictly limit the shackling of pregnant women, Ragsdale noted in his letter. Murray’s letters sought to find out what the agency is doing in the other half of the facilities.
In a statement to Fusion, an ICE representative said that a birth had not occurred in several years and that the agency “takes the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care very seriously, and the agency is committed to ensuring that all ICE detainees receive timely and appropriate medical treatment.”
“Undocumented immigrants in our country should be treated with the same respect and dignity every human being deserves,” Murray told Fusion. “I will continue monitoring [the agency’s] efforts closely to ensure ICE’s policies and practices reflect the highest standards of human rights.”
Watch our video on how ICE detains pregnant women against policy:
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.