Lawmakers Want Medical Abuse Claims At ICE Facility Probed

By Suzanne Monyak
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Law360 (September 16, 2020, 8:00 PM EDT) -- A U.S. congresswoman said Wednesday she has learned that at least 17 women detained at a Georgia immigration detention facility have undergone unnecessary gynecological medical procedures, fueling calls to probe allegations of forced hysterectomies at the facility.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said in a statement that "at minimum 17 to 18" women detained at the Irwin County Detention Center, located in southern Georgia, have been subjected to "unnecessary medical gynecological procedures" from the same doctor, "often without appropriate consent or knowledge, and with the clear intention of sterilization."

Jayapal's claim — based on briefings she had with lawyers representing immigrants detained at the facility — comes days after human rights organization Project South reported that high rates of detained women at the facility are given hysterectomies, a surgery to remove the uterus, by the same gynecologist without informed consent.

In Project South's complaint to a government watchdog, the organization relied on interviews with unnamed detained immigrants who said they knew of several women who have undergone the procedure and testimony from a whistleblowing nurse named Dawn Wooten.

"It has become painfully clear to me that the initial reports brought to light on Monday by whistleblower Dawn Wooten and Project South are likely part of a pattern of conduct," Jayapal said Wednesday.

Earlier on Wednesday, Jayapal and other top House Democrats led a group of more than 170 lawmakers in calling on a government watchdog to probe Project South's claims, which also accused the Georgia facility of providing poor medical care and failing to implement procedures to curb the spread of COVID-19.

In their letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General Joseph Cuffari, the lawmakers compared the alleged practice of giving women unnecessary hysterectomies to eugenic-sterilization laws passed in the early 20th century.

"The reports of mass hysterectomies cause grave concern for the violation of the bodily autonomy and reproductive rights of detained people," the lawmakers wrote. "Everyone, regardless of their immigration status, their language, or their incarceration deserves to control their own reproductive choices, and make informed choices about their bodies."

Leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, House Oversight Committee and House Homeland Security committee have also issued statements in the wake of the reports condemning the alleged abuse at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility.

"If true, this complaint is part of a larger pattern of reproductive injustices conducted by ICE officials, such as forcing women to give birth standing up, shackling pregnant women, and neglecting medical care," CHC Chairman Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said in a statement Wednesday. 

Dr. Ada Rivera, medical director of ICE Health Service Corps, said in a statement that the allegations will be investigated by an independent office, but that ICE "vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures."

According to Rivera, only two women at the Irwin facility have been referred for hysterectomies since 2018, and "a medical procedure like a hysterectomy would never be performed against a detainee's will."

Scott R. Grubman of Chilivis Grubman Dalbey & Warner LLP, an attorney for the gynecologist, identified as Dr. Mahendra Amin, also denied the allegations.

"Dr. Amin is a highly respected physician who has dedicated his adult life to treating a high-risk, underserved population in rural Georgia," Grubman said in a statement to Law360. "We look forward to all of the facts coming out and are confident that, once they do, Dr. Amin will be cleared of any wrongdoing."

According to the Monday complaint, a detained woman told Project South that she knew of five women who had hysterectomies by the same doctor while detained at the facility, run by private prison company LaSalle Corrections, between October and December 2019.

When she spoke to the women who had undergone the procedures, she said they "reacted confused when explaining why they had one done."

"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," the woman told Project South, according to their complaint.

The organization also claimed that immigrants at the Georgia facility who report COVID-19 symptoms or other ailments are refused medical treatment and are sometimes sent back to their units without being tested for COVID-19. Wooten also reported seeing a nurse shred detainees' medical request forms.

Officers at the facility continue to transfer immigrants with either positive or pending COVID-19 test results in and out of the facility, and even knowingly deported to Mexico a person who had been diagnosed with the virus, according to the complaint.

The Monday complaint follows a number of complaints and lawsuits contesting medical care in immigration facilities in the U.S., particularly ICE's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 5,300 people in immigration detention. 

Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, released a report detailing instances in which pregnant women in immigration custody were forced to sleep on the floor and were held in solitary confinement. ICE is also currently facing claims in federal court that poor medical care at a California facility caused a Salvadoran asylum-seeker to miscarry. 

A spokesperson for LaSalle Corrections couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.

--Editing by Jack Karp.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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