Fusion has learned that 40 pregnant women were detained in the El Paso Processing Center in 2013 despite agency guidelines that say such detentions should be rare.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) says that pregnant women are “low priority” and shouldn’t be held in their facilities barring “extraordinary circumstance” or the requirements of mandatory detention. The agency is able to place “low priority” detainees on alternative forms of detention, like ankle-monitoring systems.
ICE spokesperson Gillian Christensen said in a statement to Fusion that the agency "takes the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care very seriously" and is "committed to ensuring that all ICE detainees receive timely and appropriate medical treatment."
Still, advocates argue that detention can pose a threat to the lives of both pregnant women and their unborn children, and that the centers are not set up to provide adequate care.
Fusion discovered last year, as part of an on-going investigation, that 13 pregnant women were held in detention in the El Paso center for a four-month period. Women detained there at the time told us that they were severely underfed and lacked basic medical treatment. Afterward, we filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to see if ICE is following their guidelines on detaining expectant mothers, asking for more data on the El Paso facility’s detention records.
From that request, we learned that 40 women were detained over the entirety of the year in the same facility, with one detainee held for nearly five months of her pregnancy.
The average length of stay for a pregnant detainee in the El Paso center was nearly 26 days, according to the data obtained. The FOIA request also revealed that five pregnant women who were detained in the El Paso facility were released in the week following our initial inquiries into the presence of pregnant detainees.
After our initial FOIA requests about the El Paso center, readers wrote us to say that they knew of pregnant women who had been detained in other centers in Arizona, Michigan and California. We decided then to send a second request to ICE asking how many women were held across all of the agency’s more than 250 detention facilities.
The agency’s FOIA office responded by saying that it doesn’t “collect this information” or “maintain specific records” for any detention facility, including the El Paso center, contradicting information regarding the El Paso Processing Center that Fusion had already obtained earlier this year. Just minutes before we were set to publish today’s story, an ICE spokesperson told us that these initial FOIA responses may have been in error and are "re-running the data request." We’ll update here with that information as soon as it’s available.
Silky Shah, the interim executive director of the Detention Watch Network, has been working for advocacy groups that investigate the immigration detention system since 1997. She says our difficulty obtaining data isn’t unique.
"It’s a nightmare to get any information from ICE. There’s very little transparency and that’s always been an issue,” Shah said.
Pregnant women still in detention
A 27-year old mother of two named Sugey Carrazco is five-months pregnant and currently being held in a detention center in San Diego. She is seeking asylum from Mexico, escaping an ex-husband who she says assaulted her and trying to reunite with her five- and seven-year-old sons who are in the U.S.
Carrazco hopes ICE will release her on parole or place her on one of their alternative forms of detention, like ankle monitoring, so that she can join her family in the United States.
”I don’t have a criminal background,” she said. “I’m just trying to be with my children.”
But she’s not the only pregnant woman in the center, she says.
“I’m just one of seven in this facility,” Carrazco said.
ICE did not confirm the number of pregnant women currently detained in San Diego but said Carrazco “underwent an initial medical exam by the ICE Health Service Corps’ clinical director at the Otay Mesa detention center and continues to receive professional prenatal care while she awaits the outcome of her case.”
In a statement to Fusion, ICE spokesperson Gillian Christensen also said that, “in the case of a pregnant detainee who is determined to be inadmissible, yet makes a credible fear claim at entry, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations will seek to expedite the interview process, making every effort possible to minimalize the expecting-mother’s time in custody.”
But many advocates say they aren’t doing enough. Shah believes ICE may be detaining high numbers of pregnant women at some of their centers because of the “bed mandate” -- a congressional directive which requires ICE to keep 34,000 detainees in its centers at all times.
Each detainee costs $119 per day, according recent budget estimates, which amounts to over $4 million dollars a day to taxpayers.
"Particularly vulnerable people -- elderly, pregnant women, people with mental illnesses -- are being thrown in detention because they need to fill beds, because we have a quota to maintain," Shah said.
WATCH: Sen. Patty Murray, who has fought ICE's treatment of pregnant women in detention centers, tells Fusion's Jorge Ramos detained pregnant women should be treated with respect and dignity.