Meghan Rhoad

As a feminist and as an American working on immigration policy, I have a clear line in the sand when it comes to the treatment of women who immigrate to this country: "defending our borders" should not be at the expense of defending our values. But when I interviewed women in immigration detention facilities all over the country last year and heard their stories of neglect and abuse, it became clear to me that this line has been crossed.

Immigration detention is the fastest-growing form of incarceration in the United States, and women represent roughly 10 percent of the burgeoning detention population. In 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal law enforcement agency with jurisdiction over immigration detention, held over 300,000 people in its custody for various lengths of time, and the total may surpass 400,000 this year. The daily immigration detention population now tops 30,000, an increase of roughly 50 percent over 2005. As long as Congress continues to dish out funding to step up Border Patrol operations and to expand immigration detention space, that growth is likely to continue.

The explosion of immigration detention has undermined two core principles of justice: deny liberty only when necessary, and treat those in custody with dignity. But in the politics of immigration, these core principles have become easily exchanged bargaining chips. The U.S. government has enthusiastically embraced a system that deprives more and more people of their liberty while their immigration cases are being processed -- administrative, not criminal, proceedings. Let me be clear: the majority of women imprisoned in detention centers have committed no crime. They include asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, the elderly and the seriously ill.

Immigration detention has increased even though alternatives such as allowing people to remain in the community while checking in regularly have proven cost-efficient and effective in ensuring that people show up for their hearings.

Not only does our government detain people unnecessarily, but it does so with cruelty and neglect. The conditions in many detention facilities violate the core principle of respect for the dignity of the men and women detained. The glaring failure to provide adequate medical care is of particular concern. International standards hold that detained persons are entitled to at least the same standard of health care they would receive if they were living free in the community. But in interviews for a Human Rights Watch report released in March 2009 on medical care for women in immigration detention, I heard dozens of horror stories of substandard care due to poor policies, implementation and oversight.

As I heard these women speak, the line in the sand between sound public policy and human rights violations became crystal clear: the point where those involved in designing or carrying out these policies knew or should have known that what they were doing is wrong. Transgressions were apparent everywhere:

  • Women shackled during pregnancy.
  • Breasts pumps denied to nursing mothers, resulting in fever and mastitis, and leaving them unable to continue breast-feeding.
  • Critical screenings for breast and cervical cancer withheld.
  • Contraception and abortion made inaccessible.
  • Women humiliated and demoralized because they could not obtain sanitary pads.
  • Confidentiality of medical information breached.
  • Medical records lost in transfer.
  • Requests for medical help ignored while dangerous conditions went untreated.

These policies do not just endanger women immigration detainees' lives. They also threaten their emotional health.

The impact of these policies is felt not only by those detained, but by their families and communities. One woman interviewed for our report described to me how her inability to get medical care when there were signs that she might have breast cancer was devastating her family:

"I worry about my breast a lot. I told my family, 'Don't ask me to [appeal my immigration case].' I'm not well and I would have to stay without medical care. I don't know from month to month ... things can get worse in my breast. It's hurting me. What was I supposed to do, die of cancer here? With adequate care, yes, I would stay until the end. Because 22 years of my life [have been in the US]. My kids are 12 and the United States is all they know. Depression, inadequate food, detention? Yes, still I would have fought it indefinitely."

There is some hope. The Obama administration is in the process of examining the detention system, including the system's health care record, and its role in our immigration policy. Congress will also be taking on these issues when they debate comprehensive immigration reform. As these reviews are under way, policymakers would do well to bring the same commitment to defending our principles that they have brought to defending our borders. And women who care can tell them so.