Democrats Move to End the Detention of Pregnant Migrant Women

A group of 16 senators, led by Nevada Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, want to reinstate an Obama-era policy against holding pregnant women in immigration detention, citing a stillborn birth at a Texas detention center. The group sent a letter to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in which they advocated for improved medical care for pregnant detainees, and reinstating a policy that exempts pregnant women from being held in custody by immigration forces. This policy of “presumptive release” was enacted in 2016 under former President Barack Obama and scrapped by President Donald Trump in 2017.

In the last two years, at least 28 women may have miscarried just before or while in ICE custody, The Arizona Republic reported in February. There have been several reports of pregnant detainees being denied access to medical care or receiving inadequate care while in ICE custody. “Given the many potential risks that pregnant women face in custody, and the availability of a wide spectrum of effective alternatives to detention, there is no plausible justification for regular detention of pregnant women,” the senators wrote in the letter.

They continued, “We strongly urge ICE to reverse its decision and reinstate a policy of presumptive release for all pregnant women, and CBP to institute strong measures that ensure the timely and appropriate treatment of pregnant women in its custody.”

ICE declined to comment on the senators’ letter but clarified to The North Star that the Obama-era policy did not forbid the detention of pregnant women, and that the agency also detained pregnant women under the George W. Bush administration.

While ICE did detain pregnant migrants during the Obama administration, the 2016 policy mandated that pregnant women should be released to access needed health care services and be allowed to continue their cases outside of detention. The current policy ends presumptive release and instead makes decisions on a case-by-case basis, “absent the requirements of mandatory detention.”

Trump’s policy reversal prompted an April 2018 letter from 250 advocacy organizations, which claimed that immigration detention centers were incapable of providing adequate health care to pregnant detainees. The letter said that ending presumptive release would likely “result in more pregnant individuals in detention and pregnant individuals detained for longer periods of time, thus exacerbating these problems and further endangering the lives of pregnant people.”

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney Victoria Lopez told The Arizona Republic in February that the removal of the policy was “another example of how the Trump administration’s aggressive anti-immigration enforcement policies are subjecting vulnerable immigrants to abuse and just tragic outcomes that are completely unnecessary.”

The senators’ letter comes during a period of upheaval at the Department of Homeland Security. On Sunday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned from office seemingly due to a push in the Trump administration to get tougher on border security. “I have determined that it is the right time for me to step aside,” Nielsen said in a resignation letter cited by The New York Times. “I hope that the next secretary will have the support of Congress and the courts in fixing the laws which have impeded our ability to fully secure America’s borders and which have contributed to discord in our nation’s discourse.”

Two days earlier Trump withdrew the nomination of ICE Acting Director Ron Vitiello to direct the agency, CNN reported. “We’re going in a little different direction. Ron’s a good man but we’re going in a tougher direction,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday.

The senators' letter also requested that ICE and CBP provide documents and responses to a series of questions before April 26.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.