A 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 spaces, refused 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.