On September 14, 2020, Project South and whistleblower Dawn Pooten filed a complaint with the US Department of Homeland Security alleging forced hysterectomies at an Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), amid other forms of medical neglect. The center is run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and houses people detained for immigration reasons. The complaint details how women held at ICDC have undergone hysterectomies – or the removal of the womb, preventing any future pregnancies – at staggeringly high rates and without informed consent. As one detainee described in a 2019 interview, “when I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp.”
Women, including transgender women, and men detained in ICE facilities have also reported widespread sexual violence. While ICE claimed to end a policy of holding transgender women in men’s facilities in early 2016, in practice this still occurs: This not only undermines transgender women’s identity as women, but heightens their risk of sexual assault. ICE’s pattern of abuse fits within a larger history of reproductive and sexual violence by the US state against people of color, particularly Latinx, Black, and Native individuals. A 1968 study in Puerto Rico found that more than a third of women aged 20 – 49 had been sterilized; the 1973 Relf lawsuit uncovered hundreds of thousands of instances of forced sterilization, including of Black women; and a 1974 study by Dr. Connie Redbird Pinkerton Uri, Choctaw/Cherokee, found that the Indian Health Service – an agency of the US Health Department – forcibly sterilized at least a quarter of Native women. This reproductive violence carried into the twenty-first century, with continued practice of forcibly sterilizing incarcerated individuals.
Reproductive and sexual violence in ICE detention centers is fueled by the convergence of racist, patriarchal, transphobic, and nationalist US state practices; a history of abuse reinscribed in new ways. Policy responses to this abuse must account not only for the gendered nature of the reproductive and sexual violence taking place in ICE detention centers, but also how this abuse intersects with and upholds white supremacist ideologies. Policies must also account for the specific needs of communities both historically and presently impacted by such practices. This requires reckoning with a national legacy of eugenics, as well as accountability for ongoing abuse.
External legal accountability for abuse within ICE detention centers is unlikely, in part due to US notions of exceptionalism. As the US is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction to prosecute, despite ‘enforced sterilization’ being classified as a crime against humanity. Similarly, the US has not accepted jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. US Congressional democrats have called for a domestic investigation by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general into these forced sterilization and other abuse allegations: This investigation will take time, however, underscoring the need for immediate interventions to curb ongoing reproductive and sexual violence.
Immediate policy responses must ensure that detained people are housed in facilities commensurate with their gender identity; guarantee independent monitoring of ICE facilities, particularly privately-operated facilities which report the highest rates of abuse; document accurate and publicly accessible reporting data; and provide legal protection for individuals who come forward about abuse, including reproductive and sexual violence. On September 15, 2020, ICE deported a critical witness in an ongoing sexual assault investigation into an El Paso ICE detention center, even after the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general asked that she remain in the US. Such reports are part of a pattern of ICE officials weaponizing immigration status. Facility guards threaten detained individuals with deportation if they speak out about abuse, or force detained individuals into sexual acts using the promise of freedom. This emphasizes the urgent need for legal protections, including protection from deportation, particularly as investigation unfolds into the forced sterilization reported by Dawn Pooten and Project South.
However, prevention of future abuse – rather than reaction – requires reimagining US systems, including immigration, and ultimately abolishing ICE. As long as ICE exists to enforce a violent immigration system with impunity, reproductive and sexual violations are likely to continue.