ICE cruelty: What will Americans do?

Just when we thought U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s record of abuse couldn’t get much worse, a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia provided testimony showing the agency is capable of more cruelty than we knew.

Dawn Wooten shocked the country when she and impacted women alleged ICE doctors performed a disturbing number of hysterectomies and other invasive procedures on unconsenting immigrant women in their custody.

As disturbing as the news was, forced hysterectomies are hardly new. The United States has a long and shameful history of forcibly sterilizing marginalized people, especially Black, Latinx and Indigenous people, as well as people with disabilities. In fact, 1930 laws condoning eugenics — a twisted attempt to improve the human race by selective breeding — actually helped inspire genocidal policies in Nazi Germany.

Between the 1930s and 1970s, government-sponsored programs in the U.S. led to the sterilization of approximately one-third of Puerto Rican women. Similarly, doctors associated with the Indian Health Service sterilized between 25 percent and 42 percent of Indigenous women of child-bearing age in the U.S., sometimes without informed consent, by coercion or even without the woman’s knowledge. Many of these sterilizations of Indigenous women occurred in New Mexico.

Fortunately, state laws and public oversight have largely ended targeted government-sponsored sterilization schemes. But clearly, government sponsored/funded coerced sterilizations are not a thing of the past. The privatization of immigration detention, which has largely allowed ICE to escape oversight, is partly to blame.

More than 70 percent of immigrants in detention are held in privately run facilities. Private corporations that run detention facilities on behalf of the government are not subject to certain legal checks otherwise imposed on government entities that help safeguard human rights.

At the ACLU of New Mexico, our immigrant rights team is working with a coalition of advocacy groups to pass legislation that would ban privately operated detention centers and prisons in New Mexico. The failure of these facilities to prioritize people over profit and operate in a safe and humane manner, especially during a global pandemic, makes legislation against for-profit detention in New Mexico urgent.

Even before the coronavirus began spreading rampantly inside these facilities, private detention corporations were notorious for widespread medical neglect, inhumane treatment and violence against those in their custody. Now in the midst of the pandemic, the New Mexico Department of Health has reported more than 530 virus cases in the three private ICE detention centers in our state.

Despite these alarming numbers, ICE has failed to implement COVID-19 protocols in accordance with CDC guidelines. We have also received repeated reports of private detention center operators using excessive force and solitary confinement against detainees engaged in peaceful hunger strikes to protest their prolonged detention, poor detention conditions and the imminent threat of COVID-19.

The neglect, abuse and cruelty taking place inside the U.S. immigration detention system is the product of a racist system that extends beyond the tragedy in Georgia.

All New Mexicans of good conscience must demand an end to using privately operated detention centers and prisons in our state, accountability for ICE’s horrific abuses, and immediate rectifying action from elected officials who fund and oversee the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It’s not too late to turn a new page, one where it’s unimaginable to deny anyone, let alone the most marginalized among us, the right to control their own bodies and decide when to have children.

This op-ed was originally published in the Santa Fe New Mexican.