In a small Texas town, just two hours from the Mexican border, several dozen migrant mothers have been locked up with their children as they await court hearings to determine whether they’ll be allowed to remain in the United States or be deported back home.
Several of those women are pregnant.
Federal officials have said it’s not their objective to house pregnant mothers in their newly constructed family detention centers, but residents and advocates say nearly a half-dozen mothers from Guatemala and El Salvador have been locked up as part of the Obama administration’s aggressive response to last year’s surge of migrant families fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.
The detention of pregnant mothers adds an additional layer of complexity to the already controversial practice of detaining mothers and children.
Opponents, who include politicians and advocates, say it’s un-American to detain mothers and children in “jail-like facilities.” And being pregnant is physically and emotional demanding enough without the added stress of trying to explain to your child why you’re locked up and worrying whether you’ll be deported, said Rachel Gore Freed, a senior program leader with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which has been providing financial and technical support on behalf of the detained mothers.
“The specific conditions of a detention center can have a debilitating effect on what is considered a hard time on a body,” she said.
Reached by phone inside the facility in Karnes City, Texas, two mothers told McClatchy that they learned about their pregnancies after being given a urine test soon after admission. They said they’re receiving prenatal vitamins and special sandwiches.
One of the women, who is in her first trimester, said she had been taken to a hospital in San Antonio to check on her unborn baby. But another mother said she had not received off-site medical care for her pregnancy.
“No one has ever told me to lift my shirt, we’re going to look to see how your baby’s heart is doing,” said one Central American mother, who is in her second trimester. “That’s what doctors do in my country.”
McClatchy is not naming the women, who fear reprisals from staff.
While limited in specifics, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement standards for family detention outline its care for pregnant women.
“Pregnant females will have access to pregnancy management services that include routine prenatal care, counseling and assistance, nutrition, and postpartum follow-up,” the standards state.
Richard Rocha, an ICE spokesman, said ICE takes the health of detainees very seriously and ensures they all “receive timely and appropriate medical screenings and treatment.” He said detainees receive pregnancy screenings at arrival, prenatal care and access to specialists for pregnant women who remain in custody.
There are about 760 people, mostly mothers and children, detained at one of three family detention centers in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas, and in Berks County Pa.
Joanne Lin, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said she thinks the detention of mothers violated policy guidelines issued by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
In a November 2014 memorandum, Johnson said that “absent extraordinary circumstances,” field agents should not detain pregnant mothers and primary caretakers of children.”
Federal officials, however, contend that last year’s surge of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors and families was extraordinary.
The Obama administration brought back the nearly abandoned practice of family detention. Many of the mothers and children now being detained fled some of the most violent parts of El Salvador and Honduras, which has the world’s highest homicide rate.
ICE has not released how many of these women are mothers, but officials said it’s uncommon that a pregnant mother would be detained.
“ICE exercises discretion on a case-by-case basis focusing on our stated priorities while considering our limited resources,” Rocha said. “Decisions for humanitarian release –including various medical conditions to include pregnancy – are based on the merits of each case, the factual information provided to the agency, the potential threat to public health and safety, and the totality of the individual’s circumstances.”