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She gave birth to her baby while standing up, holding on to the side of a trash can in a Border Patrol station, she and her family told the American Civil Liberties Union. She was still wearing her pants.
They were in the midst of being processed by agents at the Chula Vista Border Patrol Station near San Diego, and she had repeatedly asked the agents for help, telling them how much pain she was in. Instead, she was repeatedly told to sit down and wait to be processed, she said.
After about 30 minutes, her husband could hear the baby crying through the fabric of her pants. He lowered them and saw his baby’s head. Their daughters, ages 2 and 12, looked on.
The dramatic birth was detailed in a complaint provided to BuzzFeed News and filed Wednesday by the ACLU and Jewish Family Service of San Diego with the US Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General. The complaint, based on interviews with the family and a review of the woman’s medical records, accuses the Border Patrol agents involved of abuse, demanding the inspector general conduct an investigation.
Alongside the complaint, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal is writing a letter to Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Joseph Cuffari also demanding an investigation, according to a copy obtained by BuzzFeed News. The letter is signed by 12 other members of Congress, including Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar, and it seconds the ACLU’s demand for an investigation into the woman’s specific incident, as well as several similar instances of the mistreatment (including incidents previously reported by BuzzFeed News) of pregnant people in immigration custody, and an overhaul of DHS policies on the detainment of pregnant people.
Wednesday’s complaint is the second in a series filed by the ACLU about the treatment of pregnant people in Customs and Border Protection custody. The first, filed in late January, accused CBP of many instances of “heinous abuse or neglect” when dealing with pregnant people in their custody and said the agency was even violating its own policies.
Both complaints recommend that DHS stop detaining pregnant people entirely — or, if necessary, not for more than 12 hours — and that it prioritize providing medical care for pregnant migrants. Wednesday’s complaint also recommends that “fast-track deportation” policies, like the Trump administration’s “Migrant Protection Protocols” (often referred to as the “Remain in Mexico” program or MPP), not be applied to pregnant detainees. These protocols send people seeking asylum in the US back to Mexico while they await legal immigration proceedings, and have created densely populated, underserved, and dangerous camps along the US–Mexico border. There is limited housing, food, and medical care in these camps, and its inhabitants are often targeted by cartels.
The family participating in the ACLU’s complaint, whose names were redacted from the complaint for their safety, is from Guatemala. Like many asylum-seekers in their situation, the family was fleeing violence and persecution in their home country. The father and 27-year-old mother traveled from their home with their two young daughters and arrived at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego in mid-May 2019, nine months before she gave birth. They were sent back to Mexico and spent nine months in a camp in Tijuana, presenting themselves at the border for three separate immigration hearings, the complaint said. During their wait, the woman became pregnant, with a due date of mid-March 2020.
On Feb. 16 this year, the woman began receiving calls from the persecutors the family was fleeing, the complaint states. They began to harass her and threaten her, saying they knew she was in Tijuana and could come find her and her family. Their next immigration hearing wasn’t until May, a year after they first arrived at the border, and the family decided they couldn’t wait any longer. They set out to cross the border illegally, outside the port of entry, understanding they were likely to be apprehended by ICE, but that they would be safer in US detainment than in the camps.
As they crossed the desert, the woman began to feel contractions and immense pain, she later told the ACLU. Even before they set out on their journey, she had a severe cough — but now it was growing worse. Her husband grew so concerned he attempted to call 911 from the middle of the desert, the family told the ACLU, but the call did not go through.
They were soon apprehended by a Border Patrol agent. The woman was in clear distress, and her husband begged the agent for medical attention, the complaint says, but instead the agent loaded the family into his car and giving them a “rough ride” (an abusive practice in which some border agents reportedly purposefully drive badly so as to fling detainees around the car), the complaint says, and brought them to the Chula Vista Border Patrol Station for processing.
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A few days after the incident, CBP put out a press release stating that when the family was apprehended, “the mother did not appear to be in distress and did not request any medical attention.” The press release says the station’s medical staff “noticed she was in labor” and “prepared an area for the mother to give birth.”
“Thanks to the medical resources available in our stations, this woman and her child were well cared for and received immediate medical attention,” Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke said in the statement. “Our agents are well trained to manage the unexpected, and I’m proud of the work they did in caring for this mother.”
In response to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment complaint, a CBP public affairs specialist said Wednesday that the allegations made in the complaint were “serious” and that the agency “would certainly want to look into this and make sure there have been no inaccuracies in our release nor any policies broken by our employees,” the specialist wrote in an email Wednesday, “and we would definitely want to present our findings to the public.”
The specialist added that looking into the allegations would require “coordination between local offices in San Diego and Washington, DC HQ,” he wrote, which will take time.
On Thursday, a CBP spokesperson sent another statement to BuzzFeed News before releasing it publicly on Twitter, stating that, after reading over the complaint, the agency "strongly disagrees with the unsubstantiated allegations against our agents."
"CBP treats those in our custody with dignity and respect and provides multiple avenues to report any misconduct," the spokesperson wrote. "We take all allegations seriously and investigate all formal complaints."
According to internal CBP records, the statement continued, CBP medical staff performed "what appear to be nothing short of heroic actions of medical personnel and agents on scene and welcomes the response of DHS OIG."
But the family says that while they were being processed, the woman’s “pain became excruciating and intolerable” and her cough worsened, according to the complaint. Sitting down exacerbated the pain, so she stood up and held onto a trash can for support, bracing it in pain as agents repeatedly yelled at her to sit down. As her family and about 20 strangers looked on, she began to give birth.
“In the midst of another coughing fit, she partially delivered her baby into her pants” a month before her due date, the complaint says. After her husband removed her pants, “a border patrol agent and multiple medical staff also reached for the baby, some without gloves, and the baby was born,” the complaint states.
Shortly after, she was separated from her family and brought to a local hospital where she stayed for two nights. As she received postpartum care, a border agent remained in the room with her, not allowing her privacy. In the hospital, she was also diagnosed with influenza, the complaint says.
The 27-year-old requested a change of clothes and a shower in the hospital, her attorney with the ACLU, Monika Langarica, told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday. She was given a fresh pair of pants, but her other requests were denied. She was not allowed to shower for days after crossing the desert and giving birth.
“Her experience outlines a number of manifestations of abuse,” Langarica told BuzzFeed News. “She should have had the utmost level of privacy when she was receiving postpartum care. Being denied a shower after birth is abusive. She asked for a shower and she was denied a shower. It’s a need for people to have access to these necessities.”
After she was discharged from the hospital, the Border Patrol agent brought her back to the station with her newborn — and, because she had symptoms of the flu, put her and her family into a quarantine cell, an earlier version of the complaint provided to BuzzFeed News stated. These cells are notoriously freezing cold, but when the woman asked for a blanket for her newborn, she was denied, the complaint claims.
It wasn’t until the family was transferred to a family shelter run by Jewish Family Service of San Diego that she was allowed to shower and the family was given medical attention. There, the shelter interviewed them about their experiences and contacted the ACLU.
The family is now safe and healthy and reunited with family members in another part of the US, Kate Clark, senior director of immigration services at Jewish Family Service of San Diego, told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday.
“We’ve been in contact with her and … letting her know what advocacy is happening on her behalf,” Clark said. “It was such a horrific experience that, she’s expressed to us, if shedding light on her case could make a difference in this happening to other people, that’s all the more reason to continue to move forward with the complaint.”
This is not the first complaint filed about the treatment of pregnant people under Trump’s Department of Homeland Security. In December 2017, the Trump administration quietly overturned an Obama-era policy of only holding pregnant people in immigration custody in extreme circumstances. Instead, the new directive allowed DHS to detain pregnant people unless they were in their third trimester of pregnancy.
Since then, there have been dozens of reports of mistreatment of pregnant people, including a 2018 BuzzFeed News investigation, cited in the ACLU’s January complaint, which found that even the department was even flouting this new policy. People in all stages of their pregnancies told BuzzFeed News they had been detained, shackled around the belly, abused, and denied medical care.
The investigation has triggered congressional demands for investigations similar to the ones filed Wednesday. However, there appears to have been little follow-up by the Trump administration, and the department has undergone several high-level personnel changes since BuzzFeed News published its investigation in the summer of 2018.
“It’s not lost on me that things like this and cases with very extreme situations and trauma have happened for years and continue to happen,” Clark said. If nothing happens as a result of this complaint, Jewish Family Service and the ACLU could potentially “take the impact litigation route,” Clark said.
Langarica, the attorney with the ACLU, said the organization will “monitor the situation” and “continue assessing our options,” though she would not say specifically whether it planned to sue the Department of Homeland Security.
In this case, the mom delivered a healthy baby, Clark said to BuzzFeed News. “But the circumstance could easily have been one where the child was born and there were complications, and there was not the medical intervention required to deal with a situation like that, nor the expertise at the Border Patrol facility, whether they were medical professionals or not,” she said.
Risks of labor outside of a hospital or without medical assistance can be life-threatening or lead to long-term disabilities, the complaint states. Underlying issues common to people seeking asylum, like malnutrition, anemia, infectious diseases, and sexually transmitted infections, can place the pregnant person at an even higher risk.
This is why Border Patrol stations are not a place for pregnant people, Langarica and Clark both argued. Their complaint recommends that pregnant people have medical care prioritized above all else and be released as soon as possible to their family networks outside of the immigration system that could better care for them.
“I have a young toddler, and every time I reread this complaint I think back to my own birth experience and how different it was from this woman’s,” Clark told BuzzFeed News ahead of the complaint’s release. “All of the things needed postpartum were not provided to the mom in this case, and they could have easily been provided. The whole thing from beginning to end … it’s horrific.”
This post has been updated with an additional response from US Customs and Border Protection.