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Analysis

Forced Sterilization Accusations at ICE Facility Fit with Trump’s Poor Treatment of Immigrants

Forced sterilization is antithetical to human rights and has a racist history in the United States.

whis­tleblower complaint filed this week alleges that since fall 2019, a doctor at a U.S. Immig­ra­tion and Customs Enforce­ment deten­tion center in Geor­gia has performed a high rate of hyster­ec­tom­ies on Span­ish-speak­ing immig­rants without their consent. If these alleg­a­tions are true, they would fit into the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s pattern of target­ing immig­rants for inhu­mane treat­ment, even as a deadly pandemic rages.

A hyster­ec­tomy is major surgery that ends a person’s abil­ity to become preg­nant. The whis­tleblower, a nurse at the privately oper­ated ICE facil­ity, asserts that many patients did not under­stand what proced­ure they were under­go­ing or why it was being performed. She ques­tions whether the surger­ies were medic­ally neces­sary, and her complaint notes that the doctor admit­ted to remov­ing the wrong ovary during one oper­a­tion.

As the Bren­nan Center has docu­mented, ICE has failed to protect the health of immig­ra­tion detain­ees during the pandemic, ignor­ing experts’ calls for a reduc­tion in the number of people held in immig­ra­tion deten­tion centers. Instead, it has kept them in over­crowded spacesrefused to test for Covid-19 in some deten­tion facil­it­ies, and failed to provide soap, hand sanit­izer, and masks. So perhaps not surpris­ingly, the whis­tleblower alleges that she and detain­ees in the facil­ity have faced retali­ation for rais­ing concerns about condi­tions there, which were the focus of the complaint she filed with the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity’s Office of the Inspector General.

ICE offi­cials have even taken proact­ive steps that endangered immig­ra­tion detain­ees during the pandemic, like spray­ing harsh disin­fect­ants — which can cause burns, bleed­ing, and respir­at­ory prob­lems and have sickened detain­ees — in crowded, poorly vent­il­ated areas, some­times as frequently as 50 times a day. And in June, in order to send DHS agents to Wash­ing­ton to crack down on protests there, ICE offi­cials chartered a plane to trans­fer a group of immig­rants to a deten­tion facil­ity in Virginia. The only appar­ent reason for the trans­fer was to exploit a loop­hole in a rule prohib­it­ing agency employ­ees from trav­el­ing on chartered planes unless they are accom­pan­ied by detained immig­rants. The result was an outbreak of Covid-19 that infec­ted over 300 detain­ees and killed at least one.

At the same time, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has used the pandemic as an excuse to imple­ment long­stand­ing policy goals of racist hard­liners who want to drastic­ally curtail immig­ra­tion. These policies include block­ing asylum-seekers from enter­ing the United States and imme­di­ately deport­ing immig­rants who cross the south­ern border without docu­ments, a process that typic­ally forces migrants into close contact with each other. To be sure, the Obama admin­is­tra­tion was criti­cized for an increase in the number of immig­rant detain­ees and poor condi­tions in deten­tion facil­it­ies, although noth­ing on the scale of what we have seen under Trump.

The charges of hyster­ec­tom­ies performed without informed consent at the Geor­gia immig­ra­tion deten­tion facil­ity bring up the disgrace­ful history of govern­ment ster­il­iz­a­tion programs that long targeted Black and brown people in this coun­try. Based on xeno­phobic and racist pseudos­cience about repro­duct­ive “fitness,” govern­ment-sponsored forced ster­il­iz­a­tion programs took shape in the early 20th century. In 1927, the Supreme Court upheld the consti­tu­tion­al­ity of a state’s right to forcibly ster­il­ize people deemed unfit to procre­ate, a shame­ful decision that has never been expressly over­turned.

As many as 70,000 Amer­ic­ans with mental illness or devel­op­mental disab­il­it­ies were ster­il­ized from the 1920s to the 1970s by the govern­ment. Forced ster­il­iz­a­tion programs dispro­por­tion­ately affected disabled indi­vidu­als and women of color. A survey of Puerto Rico resid­ents in 1965 found that about 35 percent of all Puerto Rican moth­ers ages 20 to 49 had been ster­il­ized. By the 1970s, as many as 25 percent of Native Amer­ican women ages 15 to 44 had been ster­il­ized. Between 1909 and 1979, Cali­for­nia performed one-third of all govern­ment-funded ster­il­iz­a­tions in the coun­try, largely target­ing Latino and Black people. State-mandated ster­il­iz­a­tions tapered off as ster­il­iz­a­tion laws were repealed and the federal govern­ment issued guidelines requir­ing informed consent.

More recently, we have seen state-sponsored ster­il­iz­a­tion over­lap with deten­tion. Between 2006 and 2010, 146 people incar­cer­ated in two women’s pris­ons in Cali­for­nia, most Black or Latina, were ster­il­ized in viol­a­tion of strict stand­ards estab­lished to prevent abuse, and at least three dozen of these proced­ures were performed in viol­a­tion of Cali­for­ni­a’s informed consent process.

Now, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is accused of an irre­par­able viol­a­tion of repro­duct­ive autonomy against immig­ra­tion detain­ees. If true, those respons­ible must be held account­able. At a minimum, Congress must invest­ig­ate the whis­tleblower’s alleg­a­tions. And Congress must also restore the guard­rails that have eroded during the Trump era, includ­ing those that protect science-based poli­cy­mak­ing, the rule of law, and human rights.