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Human Rights Advocates Expose Systemic Reproductive Injustices by Border Patrol

“The agency knows this is happening, and they’re turning away from the problem,” said one immigrants’ rights attorney.

Immigrants seeking asylum are stuck in a makeshift camp between border walls between the U.S. and Mexico, sit as a Customs and Border Protection officer keeps watch on May 13, 2023, in San Diego, California.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) subjects pregnant, postpartum, and nursing migrants to inhumane and dangerous conditions, often in violation of the federal immigration agency’s own standards of care, according to documentation recently made public by advocacy organizations.

According to an April 25 letter — signed by dozens of organizations, attorneys, immigration experts, and health care providers and sent to CBP Acting Commissioner Troy Miller — systemic injustices carried out by the agency routinely threaten the sexual, reproductive, and maternal health of migrants and the health and well-being of their newborns.

In one example outlined from March 2023, Border Patrol apprehended a Guatemalan woman in her fourth month of pregnancy near McAllen, Texas. Border Patrol, one of the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agencies, held the woman for eight days without adequate access to medical care or basic necessities before she was expelled from the U.S. without the opportunity to request asylum. Border Patrol operates under CBP, which itself is housed within the Department of Homeland Security.

In another case from January, Border Patrol agents apprehended a pregnant woman who was having contractions. They transported her to a San Diego hospital, where the agents attempted to separate her from her school-aged daughter by transporting the young girl alone to a Border Patrol station. According to the letter sent to Miller, “It took the intervention of the treating physician and of advocates with Jewish Family Service of San Diego to prevent the harmful separation.” In a third case from May of last year detailed in the letter, a 28-year-old pregnant Colombian woman identified as Ailyn crossed the border near Yuma, Arizona. Upon surrendering to officials, she and her partner were detained separately in Border Patrol custody. Ailyn was ill and had a suspected infection when she arrived in custody. She told agents she was pregnant, but they did not believe her, and she was denied a pregnancy test and appropriate medical treatment during multiple trips to the infirmary. Overall, Ailyn spent 16 days in Border Patrol custody.

The letter to CBP’s acting commissioner was coordinated by the Jewish Family Service of San Diego, the Center for Immigration Law and Policy (CILP) at the UCLA School of Law, and chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and was signed by more than 175 advocacy organizations, medical professionals, and immigration experts who were once again asking the agency to adopt a policy that would expedite the release of people who are pregnant, postpartum, or nursing.

The effort was part of a larger, years-long campaign launched under the Trump administration by Monika Langarica, a staff attorney at CILP. Langarica represented a woman named Ana, who in February 2020 was denied basic medical care in CBP custody and was forced to give birth in the Chula Vista Border Patrol Station in San Diego Sector while holding onto a garbage can for support. Ana was taken to an off-site hospital after giving birth but was forced to return to the station with her newborn, an American citizen. The incident prompted U.S. senators to urge CBP to stop detaining pregnant people. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inspector general also issued a report calling on the agency to develop “reliable practices to expedite releases because holding U.S. citizen newborns at Border Patrol stations poses health, safety, and legal concerns.”

In an audio recording created by Ana and shared with Prism, Ana described how nearly a dozen officials looked on as her husband swiftly helped pull down her pants as she began to give birth standing up next to a trash can in front of her two young daughters, who cried throughout the ordeal. Ana said what happened to her still causes her “so much pain,” but she is speaking out hoping that CBP will adopt a new policy so that no one else is forced to give birth in custody.

“They returned me to detention with my baby, and it wasn’t fair that they returned me in the bad condition I was in, and they locked me up in a tiny little room. It’s so sad, all of this,” Ana said, growing emotional. “I’m not an animal for them to treat me like this.”

Now that Title 42 has ended and CBP will process more people, CBP facilities will likely become overcrowded. Langarica said this is a crucial time to “push with urgency” for CBP to adopt a policy that would protect the “acute needs” of vulnerable populations who have long suffered abuse and neglect in the agency’s custody.

In response to Ana’s in-custody birth and Langarica’s resulting campaign, in 2021, CBP issued new guidance requiring diapers, baby wipes, and formula to be inside CBP facilities, along with “snacks” for individuals covered under the guidance and baby bassinets in some stations. The attorney said it was not a “meaningful” policy change and does nothing to ensure that vulnerable populations are quickly processed through CBP facilities.

“The literal physical infrastructure of [these facilities] renders them completely unsuitable for people with reproductive health needs,” Langarica said. “It’s been three years since the incident that happened at the Chula Vista Border Patrol station, and tragically, but not unexpectedly, we continue to encounter people who are pregnant, postpartum, or nursing and who have horror stories about their experiences in Border Patrol custody. The agency knows this is happening, and they’re turning away from the problem.”

Prism contacted CBP regarding the letter from advocacy organizations and asked the agency to comment on whether it plans to adopt a policy that would allow for the expedited release of people who are pregnant, postpartum, or nursing. The agency did not respond by publication time. There has also not been a formal response to advocacy organizations’ April 25 letter to CBP’s acting commissioner. The agency’s lack of urgency does not bode well for those in custody.

CBP detention facilities were originally designed for single adults and are intended to be used for short-term custody, making these facilities wholly inappropriate for the prolonged detainment of pregnant people, families, children, and other vulnerable populations. Migrants refer to these facilities as “hieleras” or ice boxes because of how cold they are, and they say CBP routinely feeds them rotten or moldy food. The facilities themselves are often small, concrete rooms with concrete or metal benches, no showers, and fluorescent lights that are left on day and night. There are no beds, forcing people to sleep on the ground or on concrete benches with nothing more than a mylar blanket. Typically, there are no full-time, trained medical personnel on site.

CBP’s National Standards on Transport, Escort, Detention, and Search (TEDS) dictate that the agency is required to provide migrants in custody with basic necessities, including food, snacks, drinking water, restrooms, hygiene supplies, and medical care for those who need it. Adults are to be processed out of these facilities as quickly as possible, and the agency is legally required to process children within 72 hours. While CBP says it prioritizes processing vulnerable populations, migrants have been known to spend days and sometimes weeks or months in these facilities.

The agency’s failure to adhere to its own basic standards is well documented, and the results are routinely devastating. Multiple children have died in the agency’s custody, including the death last month of Anadith Tanay Reyes Alvarez in Texas. The 8-year-old was only transferred to a hospital after she was seen by medical personnel in Border Patrol custody three times on the day of her death due to vomiting, stomach pains, and a suspected seizure. The girl’s mother, Mabel Alvarez Benedicks, told the media that agents repeatedly ignored her pleas to hospitalize her daughter, who had sickle cell anemia and a history of heart problems.

“She cried and begged for her life, and they ignored her. They didn’t do anything for her,” Alvarez Benedicks told The Associated Press.

Across the country in California, more devastation was recently documented by the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC). The coalition of organizations filed a complaint with DHS’ Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on May 13 alleging that CBP subjects migrants to “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” near the San Ysidro Port of Entry in an area known as the California corridor — a space between the primary border wall that abuts Tijuana, Mexico, and the parallel secondary wall about 75 yards north. According to advocates, the area in between the walls is monitored and patrolled by CBP and is often referred to as “no man’s land.” However, it is U.S. soil and considered an “enforcement zone” by Border Patrol.

According to evidence documented by the organizations, it’s clear CBP has jurisdiction over the California corridor and actively detains people there — controlling their movements and using wristbands to identify migrants and mark their length of stay. Most of the people detained in the area are asylum-seekers hoping to be processed.

CBP did not respond to requests for comment regarding its oversight of the area, but if the agency is detaining people in the open-air region, TEDS standards ostensibly still require that CBP provide migrants with basic care, including food, water, shelter, and restroom accommodations. According to the complaint, if not for local non-government organizations disseminating food and water, migrants in the region would starve. In one case documented in the complaint, a group of men from India detained in the California corridor for five days resorted to eating leaves. Currently, CBP only provides migrants with one granola bar a day and limited access to water, often only a single bottle of water.

Pedro Rios, the director of the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) US-Mexico Border Program, has been monitoring the region. He documented that on April 23, Border Patrol brought in a single porta-potty for the hundreds of migrants held in the region. Within days, it was inoperable. There is no running water in the area, and, as of May 1, Rios estimated about 400 migrants were being held in the region without shelter.

Of grave concern is the lack of medical care in the area. The complaint and its press release contain graphic photos of migrants in desperate need of medical attention, including a man with a severe leg infection and a woman whose eyes were swollen shut. Reproductive injustices also abound in the California corridor.

One advocate who provided a declaration for the complaint encountered a 29-year-old pregnant Somali woman who vomited repeatedly but was not given medical attention. Rios encountered a Jamaican woman who suffered a miscarriage after being kidnapped and raped in Mexico. She was in “excruciating pain,” according to Rios, but agents repeatedly denied her medical attention. In another case, Rios documented an infant who was listless, vomiting, and had stopped breastfeeding. The child was only taken to a nearby hospital when advocates intervened.

Rios told Prism that Border Patrol maintains that migrants in the area are not under their custody. But after weeks of monitoring the area and documenting the agency’s actions, Rios is emphatic that migrants are “trapped” in the California corridor because Border Patrol detained them in the open-air space. The director of AFCS’ US-Mexico Border Program said he’s particularly dismayed that agents regularly have to be pressured by advocates or media attention to provide basic care or to respond to medical emergencies. Rios also expressed concern for what happens in the corridor and other regions overseen by Border Patrol when there are no outsiders watching.

“The concern I have is that these agencies are completely ill equipped to respond to the specific needs of vulnerable populations,” Rios said. “Border Patrol, as an agency, has been permitted to operate with impunity, and that exposes people with whom they are in contact to great risk of being harmed.”

Langarica told Prism it’s her sense that anything related to border policy has become “hyper-politicized” and that there has been a longstanding Republican strategy to “exploit any semblance of disorder” at the border to further an anti-immigrant agenda, which is why it’s so hard to get federal immigration agencies to adopt commonsense policies that would mitigate some of the harm experienced by vulnerable migrants, including those who are pregnant, postpartum, or nursing.

Some of the attorney’s colleagues were behind the recent complaint filed with DHS by SBCC, and she said she was moved by their efforts to address the harm.

“When I think of the people I have represented in custody who had reproductive health needs and I imagine them in the circumstances [SBCC documented] — cold, starving, and without any kind of treatment or care that signals even basic respect for their health needs or humanity — it makes my stomach turn,” Langarica said. “There’s so much opacity surrounding CBP, both their policies and their facilities. So while what’s been documented is really hard to look at, it’s critical to expose the reality of and the extent of the inhumanity and the cruelty that happens in spaces of confinement along the border.”

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. We report from the ground up and at the intersections of injustice.

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