Pregnant border crossers being detained more, longer

Published: Monday, June 29, 2015, 4:08:00 AM EDT

June 29–A clash between immigration enforcement priorities and detention policies means more pregnant women are being detained longer.

That puts women and their babies at greater risk because of the added stress and sometimes inadequate medical care, say groups that work with immigrant detainees. It also boosts the burden to the nation’s taxpayers if babies in detention are born at public expense.

“They have to have nutrition and medical care that tends to their particular pregnancy,” standards that can’t be met in detention, said Laurie Melrood, a local social worker and advocate who has visited with women in detention for years.

Officials with the Florence Project, an Arizona nonprofit that provides free legal services to people in immigration detention, said this year they are serving more pregnant women being held at Eloy Detention Center, about 60 miles northwest of Tucson. Those who are eligible for release are being given high bond amounts, usually exceeding $10,000, Florence Project officials said.

The Eloy center has always held pregnant women, but most of them were released once Immigration and Customs Enforcement knew they were pregnant, Melrood said. But now recent arrivals are considered a top priority for immigration enforcement and are being detained.

“The trend seems to be to keep them as long as possible,” Melrood said.

As of June 25, ICE said there were 12 pregnant women at Eloy. All of them met the agency’s enforcement priorities, ICE said.

“Decisions for humanitarian release — stemming from various medical conditions, including pregnancy — are based on the merits of each case, the factual information provided to the agency, the potential threat to public health and safety, and the totality of the individual’s circumstances,” Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe, an Arizona ICE spokeswoman, said in a written statement.

Falling into gray area

Nearly 70,000 people — mostly Central American mothers with their children — arrived at the border last fiscal year.

At first many of them were processed and dropped off at bus stations in places such as Tucson and Phoenix and with a notice to appear before an immigration official at their final destination.

But citing a need to deter others from making the dangerous journey north, the administration opened more family detention centers in Texas. At the same time, a Department of Homeland Security memo issued in November made people caught at the border a top priority for deportation.

While people caught at the border who don’t qualify for asylum are a priority for removal, the memo says that, “absent extraordinary circumstances or the requirement of mandatory detention,” field office directors should not detain pregnant or nursing women or the elderly.

The detention of pregnant women caught at the border falls into the gray area of ICE policies, said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the Migration Policy Institute’s immigration policy program.

“DHS policies seek to balance two competing enforcement objectives,” he said.

Also, more than 80 percent of the border removals are expedited or a reinstatement of a previous deportation, Rosenblum said, which would make them mandatory detainees.

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson announced Wednesday shifts to the practice of detaining families.

“In short, once a family has established eligibility for asylum or other relief under our laws, long-term detention is an inefficient use of our resources and should be discontinued,” Johnson said.

The agency also will release some families on bond or other conditions if they have a reasonable fear of persecution in their home countries. Bond amounts will be set “at a level that is reasonable and realistic, taking into account ability to pay, while also encompassing risk of flight and public safety.”

DHS did not respond to questions about whether this applies to pregnant women.

Stress and distrust

The November memo made it clear that vulnerable populations should not be detained, said Katharina Obser, who monitors detention conditions, among other things, as a program officer with the Women’s Refugee Commission.

Last year, Fusion, a partnership between Univision and ABC, said ICE had detained nearly 600 pregnant women over a two-year period, even after the agency had said it didn’t detain pregnant women.

“We’ve heard reports that pregnant women seeking asylum or other protection in the United States might choose deportation rather than waiting for their case to be resolved because they feel they have no other choice,” Obser said.

Detaining pregnant women “is an especially inappropriate use of detention,” she said.

Advocates and former detainees report women miscarrying, and inadequate nutrition and health care inside immigration detention facilities, which are usually run by private corporations.

ICE officials say they can accommodate special diets to include extra calories, fruits and vegetables if approved by the dietitian and health personnel at the facility.

“ICE takes seriously the health and welfare of those in our custody,” Pitts O’Keefe said. “The agency is committed to ensuring all individuals in its detention facilities receive timely and appropriate medical screenings and treatment.”

Lisbeth, a 23-year-old from Honduras, spent the first four months of her pregnancy inside the Eloy Detention Center. She asked to be identified by her middle name because she has a pending asylum case.

She didn’t know she was pregnant when she arrived at the center early in November. The first pregnancy test, which women of child-bearing age get when they are processed, was negative.

ICE’s detention standards say pregnant detainees are supposed to have access to routine or specialized prenatal care, counseling, prenatal vitamins, counseling on nutrition and exercise. They should not be restrained, “absent truly extraordinary circumstances.”

But Lisbeth said her food was often spoiled, the bread uncooked and she rarely got fruits or vegetables. She said she told an official at Eloy who said, “Ma’am, if you don’t like it, you can throw it away.”

She did see a doctor for monthly check-ups, but said she distrusted the medical care. At least two women had miscarriages during the time she was there, including a woman who was eight months pregnant. Doctors had insisted everything was fine, Lisbeth said.

“I would sleep all day,” she said, “and ask God to give my baby strength to stay inside of me.”

Karla, 24 and also from Honduras, arrived at Eloy 2 ƒ months pregnant. She asked to be identified only by her first name because she fled her former partner who is a gang member and has a pending asylum claim.

She was on bed rest for nearly two weeks, but her meals were not always brought to her, she said. She told a doctor about it and he said he would notify staff.

Pregnant women were given prenatal vitamins, she said, but the women thought they were too strong and that they might be contributing to the miscarriages, so many didn’t take them.

She lost the baby about a month after she was released in February. She was five months pregnant.

“The doctor said the stress of being in there could have contributed,” Karla said, “but they couldn’t know for sure.”

‘A whole Spectrum

of alternatives’

After Lisbeth was caught, she wrote a letter to ICE saying she couldn’t go back to Honduras because she would be killed. She had just learned her 27-year-old brother was murdered around the same time she was trekking through the desert.

She passed the first hurdle to getting asylum, which is called the credible fear interview, late last year but her bond was set at $10,000 — an amount she said she could not dream of being able to afford.

She heard about the Florence Project and through them was able to get her bond lowered to $1,500, showing that there were people here in Tucson willing to host her and make sure she understood and followed the legal process.

If ICE is concerned about a woman being a flight risk, for instance, said Obser, with the Women’s Refugee Commission, they can work with local community organizations, as they did with Lisbeth and Karla, to make sure the person is getting access to services and to help them understand what’s required of them.

“There’s a whole spectrum of alternatives to detention for individuals like this,” she said.

When Lisbeth left Eloy in February, she said the doctor said she had a yeast infection, was dehydrated and underweight. Since she’s been out she’s gained about 50 pounds and is due to have a healthy boy later this month.

She’s going to name him Sadrac, she said, a Biblical name of faith.

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at 573-4213 or On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo


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