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Immigration

As American As Apple Pie

The alleged medical malpractice in ICE facilities is part of a long and shameful history.

In the past year, multiple women detained at the Irwin County Detention Center (an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility operated by private prison company LaSalle Corrections) in Ocilla, Georgia, were allegedly sent to a gynecologist outside of the detention center and had hysterectomies performed on them.

According to a whistleblower complaint filed to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General on Monday, some of these women “reacted confused when explaining why they had one done,” and didn’t always have the correct information explained to them in their language.

The complaint alleges that one woman, who was supposed to get an ovarian cyst drained this summer but was turned away when she tested positive for COVID antibodies, was given three different explanations from a doctor, an ICE officer, and a detention center nurse on what the procedure was (including that she was getting her “womb removed”), and why she needed it. The complaint claims that another woman ended up getting a total hysterectomy after going back to the gynecologist because he had removed the wrong ovary during a previous procedure.

The complaint was filed by several organizations on behalf of an Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) nurse identified in the report as Dawn Wooten, as well as immigrants detained at the center. Several women were interviewed for the complaint, such as the woman who was scheduled to get a hysterectomy but didn’t. In the complaint, Wooten calls the gynecologist “the uterus collector.”

These “high rates” of hysterectomies weren’t the only allegations in the complaint — it also claimed that ICDC lacked proper COVID testing and personal protective equipment for detainees; conditions are unsanitary; and that ICDC retaliated against employees following health guidelines.

But after the Intercept profiled Wooten, her allegations, and the retaliation she’s faced at ICDC on Monday, and Law and Crime detailed the portion of the whistleblower complaint about the hysterectomies, the news set off alarms online and in Congress. And reasonably so. Here’s an excerpt from the complaint itself, emphasis mine):

A detained immigrant told Project South that she talked to five different women detained at ICDC between October and December 2019 who had a hysterectomy done. When she talked to them about the surgery, the women “reacted confused when explaining why they had one done.” The woman told Project South that it was as though the women were “trying to tell themselves it’s going to be OK.” She further said: “When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp. It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies.”

On Tuesday, immigration reporter Tina Vasquez identified the gynecologist referred to in the complaint as Mahendra Amin, a doctor, and an immigrant himself, based in Douglas, Georgia. Intercept reporters José Olivares and John Washington also identified the doctor as Amin, and interviewed three other current detainees at ICDC, a former employee, and eight advocates for detainees.

The current detainees said they were “pressured by the doctor to undergo partial or full hysterectomies,” that no interpreter was present, and that they were “unclear about the necessity or purpose of the proposed treatment.” From the Intercept:

One detainee told The Intercept that “the doctor got mad when I didn’t want to have the surgery” to remove a cyst. “No woman should go through this,” the detainee said, through tears. “There’s something strange going on.” Another woman who The Intercept spoke with said she simply didn’t understand why the doctor was insisting on an operation or even exactly what it would be. She had heard from other women that “he just empties you all out.”

On Wednesday, Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal released a statement that she’s spoken to three attorneys representing detainees at ICDC, and that at least 17 women may have been subjected to these procedures. She and 173 other members of Congress have called for the DHS OIG to investigate.

So far, ICE has said it wouldn’t comment on a potential OIG investigation into the complaint, other than to say “anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.” Such an investigation may very well result in another OIG report that finds more substantiated claims of unsanitary conditions for detained immigrants. Amin, the doctor, told the Intercept that “he conducted procedures on immigrant women brought from the facility,” but said he only performed “one or two hysterectomies in the past two [or] three years.” And Irwin County Hospital CEO Paige Wynn told the Intercept that consent was obtained for all procedures.

Given what we know about our immigration system, the allegations of medical neglect all make sense. In 2017, the Trump administration spent more than a month trying to stop a pregnant minor in immigration detention from getting an abortion. Amid the family separation crisis and even after, migrants told reporters that they were jailed in cramped conditions in sorting facilities and detention centers, and weren’t given adequate medical attention or food. The ICDC facility has also previously been accused of other forms of medical neglect, including failing to give prenatal care to pregnant detainees.

This complaint is all the more concerning given that our immigration system in its current state was influenced and shaped by white nationalists. Many have also viewed it through the lens of the late 19th to mid-20th century American eugenics movement.

The movement involved a series of medical and immigration policies enacted with the express purpose of encouraging the reproduction of rich, Anglo-Saxon Protestants and suppressing the reproduction of anyone who didn’t fit that description, including immigrants, poor WASPs, and people determined to have mental illness or disabilities. The American eugenics movement directly influenced the Nazi’s own eugenics policies, a fact that might garner more outrage if the country’s history of eugenics was given more than a passing glance in public schools.

Compulsory, or forced, sterilization of the country’s most marginalized people is more American than we’d like to think. Rooted in the fear that white people were committing “race suicide,” the American eugenics movement of the late 1800s to mid-20th century sought to encourage white Anglo-Saxon Protestants — decided as people “fit” to pass along their genes — to have children, and discourage everyone else “unfit” to pass along their genes from having children. In the former, that meant encouraging white families to procreate and compete in “fitter families” and “better babies” contest. In the latter, that meant legally sterilizing dozens of thousands of people without their consent — immigrants, African Americans, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, other Latinx Americans, poor people, and people determined to have mental illness or disabilities — even decades after the movement’s pre-World War II heyday.

Immigration was restricted, and interracial marriage was banned, as was outright marriage for groups of people in certain states. Supreme Court cases such as Buck v. Bell in 1927 reinforced the use of sterilization nationwide. Overall, more than 30 states legalized forced sterilization. Between 1907 and 1963, an estimated 64,000 people were sterilized without their consent. The total number is thought by some to be as high as 80,000 people, and African American, Latinx, and Native American women were more often targeted for sterilization after 1963. In the 1970s, an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 Native American women, and 10% of Native American men, were sterilized through force and coercion. Thousands of African American women were also coerced into sterilization by being told they’d have their welfare benefits revoked if they didn’t get the procedure, and incarcerated women were even coerced into sterilization in the late 2000s.

It’s unclear what exactly has been going on in Georgia. Some people have rightfully cautioned us to treat the narrative around the allegations with care. The complaint may very well be more complicated than a pure story about the deliberate reinforcement of white supremacy via reproductive harm. But whatever the motive, women who may have been able to have children have allegedly had that choice taken away from them in the most dehumanizing way. And it is this — along with the complaint, our immigration system, our country’s history of exploiting and experimenting on vulnerable people — that reinforces something sinister we already know to be true. This is America, where white supremacy asserts itself regardless of motive. This is a country with a long and shameful history of treating people not smiled upon by white supremacy as, at best, interesting test subjects. This country’s leadership and the systems we’ve created and uphold, and the people who are trusted to run these systems, do not treat immigrants and migrants as people, and act as if they do not have autonomy over their own bodies. These abuses of power have been allowed to fester and go unchecked, and we have a historical roadmap for what could happen if they are allowed to continue.

Photo of the Sonoma State Home (where over five thousand patients were involuntarily sterilized from 1918 to 1949) via Sanfranman59/Wikimedia Commons; Remix by Samantha Grasso