Following a complaint filed on behalf of a pregnant woman who said she had given birth in a border patrol station, the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security will conduct a review of the incident and a broader audit of the medical treatment of pregnant people in US Customs and Border Protection custody.
The complaint, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and first reported by BuzzFeed News in April, says that the woman and her family had entered the country seeking asylum from Guatemala and were taken to a border patrol station near San Diego. The woman repeatedly told CBP officers she was in pain and asked for help but was ignored and told to wait to be processed, according to the complaint. Shortly afterward, she gave birth to her child while standing up, holding onto a trash can, still wearing her pants.
DHS Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari announced the review in a letter to thirteen Democratic senators this month, which was obtained by BuzzFeed News.
It is a response to a request sent by the senators, led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, on April 8 in conjunction with the ACLU, demanding an investigation into the woman’s complaint, as well as a broader investigation into the treatment of pregnant people in immigration custody, and an overhaul of DHS policies on the detainment of pregnant people.
“We are reviewing the specific circumstances surrounding the treatment of the eight-month pregnant woman who gave birth at the Chula Vista Border Patrol Station that you referenced in your letter,” Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari wrote in the letter, dated Tuesday.
Cuffari also said his office is conducting an audit of detention facility policies and processes to determine whether CBP properly “safeguards” people in their custody who have “serious medical conditions … including pregnancy,” the letter reads.
Once the work is complete, the DHS OIG will report its findings publicly, the letter concluded. The letter is less than a page long.
“This response is way long overdue and frustratingly short and cursory,” Blumenthal told BuzzFeed News. “But it is an advance because it indicates that they are going to include treatment of pregnant women and while in custody in an audit of detention facility policies relating to medical issues generally.”
In December of 2017, the Trump administration quietly implemented a new policy allowing for the detention of pregnant women not in their third trimesters. This was a reversal of an Obama-era policy of telling federal immigration officers not to detain pregnant people except in extreme circumstances or in rare circumstances of expedited deportation.
Months later, in the summer of 2018, BuzzFeed News reported on several cases of pregnant people saying they were mistreated by CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Five women told BuzzFeed News that they were denied care when they asked for it, and in some cases said they were physically abused and shackled around the belly. Three of them said they miscarried while in custody.
Following this report, several members of Congress, including Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, called for investigations into the mistreatment of pregnant people in CBP and ICE custody, and Sen. Patty Murray introduced legislation to address the issue (the bill has not been brought up for a vote in the Republican-controlled).
Since then, members of Congress, including Blumenthal, have written several more letters to DHS requesting investigations into the issue. According to another letter obtained by BuzzFeed News, the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties wrote to the ACLU in April, shortly after the complaint was submitted, committing to a general investigation into the treatment of pregnant people in DHS custody. However, Tuesday’s letter is the first response from the OIG, the DHS watchdog, that Blumenthal’s office or the ACLU is aware of on this issue. The DHS OIG did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.
“We welcome the review into our client's treatment by CBP while she was forced to give birth at the Chula Vista Station,” Monika Langarica, the ACLU attorney representing the woman, told BuzzFeed News Thursday. “But we continue to urge OIG to call on CBP to adopt the recommendations laid out in our complaint.”
These recommendations include immediately transporting pregnant people to a local hospital for evaluation, instead of to a border patrol station for processing, which can sometimes take hours or days. The ACLU’s complaint also recommends the prompt release of any person forced to give birth while in custody, as well as access to basic postpartum necessities, including a shower and blankets for the newborn, as well as respect and privacy during invasive medical procedures. According to the ACLU complaint, their client received none of this treatment.
In their conversations with BuzzFeed News, Langarica and Blumenthal emphasized that this investigation has become even more important due to the acute threat of the coronavirus to anyone in detention, especially to medically vulnerable populations like pregnant women.
“At a time when we're worried about a highly contagious disease, detention facilities themselves are problematic,” Blumenthal.
Blumenthal told BuzzFeed News that he plans to respond to the letter from the OIG as soon as possible, requesting more information about the scope and timeline of the audit.