Our immigration system should be known for treating all people with dignity and respect — of course we know the system in the U.S. falls far short of this ideal. That was made clear again on Monday when Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, filed a formal complaint alleging unsafe conditions in the facility and that women in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement received hysterectomies without their consent. The formal complaint also alleges “jarring medical neglect” in the detention facility during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, including ICE’s refusal to test people in detention and the shredding and fabrication of medical records.
Forced sterilization of women is a form of abuse and an act of violence against the very image of God. While accounts that have come out are shocking and horrifying, they are unfortunately part of the larger pattern of abuse and neglect present in detention centers that immigrant people and immigration advocates have been denouncing for years.
Immigration officials have been accused of rape in detention cells, threatening people in custody with deportation if they reported the abuse. Pregnant people in immigration custody have reported being shackled and having miscarriages because they were ignored or even denied adequate medical care. Immigration detention centers have always had inadequate or dangerous medical care, and during the current administration at least six children died in immigration custody, while others suffer abuse and trauma that will remain with them their whole lives.
Black women in detention have been protesting the terrible conditions for a long time. Cameroonian women in an ICE detention facility in Louisiana began a hunger strike to protest medical neglect back in March 2020.
The larger pattern of abuse and neglect in immigration detention centers is the product of an immigration system that from its very beginnings has been informed by racist and discriminatory practices and narratives. Forced sterilization has been a common strategy of white supremacists attempting genocide against Indigenous, Black, and brown people and people with mental and physical disabilities throughout U.S. history. If Wooten’s report is accurate, it's clear those inhumane and immoral practices have been brought into the 21st century, apparently encouraged by the fact that neither Congress nor the administration has been willing or able to protect the people held in detention centers.
Wooten and the Cameroonian women are Black women, and already face the oppression of anti-Blackness and sexism, and will experience attacks unique to Black women as a result of their actions. Their stories remind me of Shiphrah and Puah in Exodus, two Hebrew women who refused to take part in a murderous system and who acted to save the lives of Hebrew boys as they were born (Exodus 1:15-22). These women show the hope of Jochebed and Miriam, defying Pharaoh to save Moses’ life, believing he would reach safety (Exodus 2:1-4).
Black women have always been the cornerstone of justice in this country, but they should not have to carry this burden alone. In Exodus 3, God hears the cries of the Hebrews and answers them, telling Moses to go and free God’s people and that God will be with him. God has undoubtedly heard the cries of people in immigration detention centers and is calling all of us to work for their freedom today.
The only way to keep detained people safe is to release them. There are alternatives to holding people in unsafe conditions, in which ICE cannot guarantee health and safety. Research has shown that over 90 percent of immigrants in community alternatives to detention will attend all their immigration court dates. One example of a successful community-based alternative to detention was the Family Case Management Program (FCMP), piloted by ICE from January 2016 to June 2017. It provided people seeking asylum legal orientation to understand their responsibilities, required regular check ins with case workers, and connected families with local nonprofit support groups for education, food, housing, and language learning assistance. People in FCMP had “more than 99% appearance rates at ICE check-in appointments and immigration court hearings.” The Women’s Refugee Commission said that the program “successfully supported hundreds of families in finding stability in their communities, supporting them with their immigration requirements, and beginning to prepare them for the outcomes of their case.”
We can’t solve problems with cages, but we can address them by providing community and care for everyone. On-the-ground groups like Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights are fighting against these injustices and inhumane practices. If we work together and use our collective power, we can build a society where immigrant people live in our communities instead of sitting in detention centers. We must speak out now so that families and immigrant people will be free, together, and safe through community alternatives to detention centers.