National NOW Foundation Times >> Fall 2008  >> Article

Immigrant Women Detainees Face Inhumane Treatment, Separation from Families

By Pat Reuss, Senior Policy Analyst

We all have read the headlines about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, where prisoners face long and arduous imprisonment that is both inhumane and degrading. Few of us know that right here in our country there are more than 400 local, state and federal "detention centers" housing 280,000-plus immigrants.

These "detainees" often face some of the same conditions as prisoners of war: no due process or access to legal counsel; inadequate health care; inhumane treatment; mental and physical stress; separation from their children and families, even nursing infants; language and cultural barriers; sexual assault; and the constant threat of deportation without regard to the detainees legal status or absence of criminal behavior.

Most of them have been detained as a result of workplace raids by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At an annual cost of over $1.2 billion dollars, the United States is placing immigrants in detention centers under conditions inconsistent with the values of the largest democracy in the world. Many of these detainees are legal residents and half of them have no criminal record, but they have been judged suspicious.

NOW Foundation, in our role as co-founder of the National Coalition for Immigrant Women's Rights (NCIWR), is concerned about this issue because 10 percent of these detainees are women-both undocumented and documented.

Many of these women have been in the U.S. for years and are now facing exile, and most of them are asylum-seekers fleeing persecution, torture, rape and other forms of violence in their native countries. Many have been caught up in raids at their workplace or picked up in their homes or neighborhoods by ICE. Most have families, including small children; some are pregnant; some are seriously ill, without access to proper medication or care; some are the sole or primary support for their families. Few are criminals.

Although there are many areas of concern around the treatment of these thousands of immigrant women in detention, including sexual violence, mental duress, and access to reproductive health care and hygiene, one specific area is especially frightening and inhumane - the practice of shackling pregnant women when they are captured, when they get medical checkups, and when they are in labor, delivery and recovery. While recent attention to this issue and outcry from advocates has helped reduce the practice of restraining prisoners and detainees, it still exists in many jurisdictions. NOW Foundation recently joined an amicus brief in opposition to the shackling of pregnant prisoners, but the case is still pending.

Detained pregnant immigrant women are typically non-violent and non-criminal and hardly constitute a security threat during the arduous stages of labor and the delivery of their children. ICE has collected comments and is formulating new (and we hope improved) detention standards for treatment of immigrants, and we will hope that the practice of shackling pregnant women and other inmates who are ill and need medical attention will be halted entirely.

In the meantime, NOW and the NCIWR will be working on a campaign to visit immigrant women in various detention centers around the country and help them tell their stories, maintain their dignity and secure their basic human rights to fair and humane treatment.

For more information, visit NOW's web page on justice for immigrant women.