ICE Doubles Down on Its Barbaric Treatment of Pregnant Women in Detention
Illustration by Eleanor Doughty


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ICE Doubles Down on Its Barbaric Treatment of Pregnant Women in Detention

Last week, ICE announced that pregnant women will no longer be automatically released from detention. It's a cruel policy—but nothing new for the agency, which was accused months ago keeping pregnant women locked up in horrific conditions.

This past September, a group of seven advocacy organizations filed a complaint against Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The allegations it outlined were disturbing: that ICE had been “failing to abide by its own policies” by keeping pregnant women locked up in notoriously nasty facilities when they should have been released on parole, putting their health at serious risk.

The complaint, which was authored by organizations such as the ACLU, the American Immigration Council, and the Women’s Refugee Commission, listed 10 anonymized women who said they experienced astonishing neglect while pregnant in ICE detention. One of the women claimed that ICE gave her only ibuprofen for the debilitating pain and bleeding she suffered after miscarrying four months into her pregnancy. Another experienced deteriorating mental health during her six months in detention while carrying her rapist’s baby. Another woman, detained by ICE at 12 weeks pregnant, was transferred between detention facilities no fewer than six times in three months—including a 23-hour round trip by bus, after which she had to be hospitalized for exhaustion and dehydration.


Press coverage and additional reports from advocacy organizations further documented the seemingly routine mistreatment of pregnant women in ICE’s care. For example, a woman in Tacoma, Washington, reportedly bled for over an hour while waiting for medical attention in an ICE detention center, eventually miscarrying. A report by the Women’s Refugee Commission claimed that ICE detention was so unbearable for some pregnant asylum-seekers that they eventually decided to give up their asylum cases and accept deportation for fear of losing their babies.

In response to the complaint, ICE repeatedly suggested that everything was normal. Despite reports that the agency had detained 35 percent more pregnant women during the first four months of 2017 than in the first four months of 2016, and despite questions surrounding the 535 pregnant women ICE detained in fiscal year 2017, ICE spokespeople assured reporters and advocates that officers were still following guidelines set in place in an August 2016 memo, which instructed them to deny parole to pregnant women only “under extreme circumstances.”

Just last week, however, ICE announced a change to those guidelines: In terms of release on parole, pregnant women are now going to be treated just like any other ICE detainee. The change was initially finalized in a memo written by acting ICE director Thomas Homan back in December, but it took ICE more than three months to send it to Congress and release it to the public.


ICE detention was so unbearable for some pregnant asylum-seekers that they eventually decided to give up their asylum cases and accept deportation for fear of losing their babies.

This news should be of no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the plight of immigrants over the past year. Since Trump issued his notorious immigration executive orders the week after his inauguration, which instructed enforcement agencies to, among other things, “ensure the detention of aliens apprehended for violations of immigration law,” ICE has been operating with the tunnel-visioned approach of locking up as many people as it possibly can.

In a conference call to reporters publicizing the new policy, a top ICE official warned, “To mischaracterize this as some kind of wholesale change or draconian change is inaccurate. We’re aligning this policy, as all of our policies, with executive orders from the president.”

Indeed, he’s right: This policy tweak is no huge change for ICE. Nonprofit watchdogs and the press already outlined substantial evidence that pregnant women weren’t being released on parole like they should have been. “Aligning this policy” is a superfluous attempt to legitimize a practice that has already proven to have disastrous consequences.

Since last January, ICE has taken advantage of the vagueness of existing enforcement guidelines to fully embrace the Trump administration’s zeal for rounding up immigrants, seeing it fit to imprison pregnant women; the sick; asylum-seekers, even though they haven’t technically broken any laws; non-criminals and legal residents with nothing more than misdemeanors; refugees, even when their native countries aren’t safe, and even when the governments of their native countries refuse to take them back; and more—all under the guise of ensuring “the public safety of the American people.”

ICE was established in 2003 on the basis of an inherently cruel mission. To “keep America secure,” the agency’s original leadership saw its “endgame” as a “100 percent rate of removal for all removable aliens.” Although that mission was tempered over time (perhaps to a lesser degree than people might think), it seems as though, under Trump, ICE has constantly sought to re-kindle it by one-upping its own nefariousness—and with deliberate opacity.

Forget the cloud of jargon and memos coming from press officers: ICE is now getting official permission (on White House letterhead) to take the categorical approach it was designed for. Gone is the pretense of protecting asylum-seekers. Gone is the leniency for low-level offenders. Gone is the façade of enforcement priorities. Under the Trump administration, there are only deportable “criminals” who violated our country's laws.

As we’ve seen with pregnant women, ICE’s rejuvenated rogue status can have serious humanitarian consequences. In overcrowded private detention facilities, people die of preventable causes. When due process for immigrants is treated as optional, people are deported to peril. When pregnant women are treated like any other detainee, unwanted miscarriages happen.

This is the nature of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Trump administration. And as long as the agency exists, and as long as Trump is at the helm and his executive orders are in play, things are only going to get worse.