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Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

'I Wanted to Die': How Pregnant Women Suffer in ICE Detention

ByChris GelardiandYemile Bucay

Jennye Pagoada Lopez says she was four months into a high-risk pregnancy when she miscarried while in ICE custody. But ICE officials insist she was never pregnant in their care.

Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

When Jennye Pagoada Lopez crossed into the United States, she was four months into a high-risk pregnancy, she says. The 32-year-old Honduran suffers from a blood disease called antiphospholipid syndrome, which puts her at risk for blood clots and strokes, and which she believes was responsible for her two previous miscarriages and the premature births of both of her children.

Pagoada crossed into San Ysidro, California on Sunday, July 23, accompanied by Luis Guerra, her legal representative from the United Farm Workers Foundation. She was seeking asylum after fleeing members of the Barrio 18 gang who had killed her relatives — first as a child in her native Honduras, then in El Salvador, where she originally sought safety. When she turned herself into US Border Patrol that Sunday, Pagoada says she told agents about her pregnancy and turned over medical records, including an ultrasound she had gotten a few weeks prior.

While she was being held overnight at the Customs and Border Protection processing center in San Ysidro, Pagoada claims that she began to experience intense pain in her abdomen and heavy vaginal bleeding. Speaking on the phone from a detention center, she told Broadly that, despite her efforts to stem the blood flow with toilet paper, she bled through her pants, making the children in her holding cell cry.

She claims that she asked for medical attention multiple times, but her requests were ignored by agents, who told her that there were no doctors available. (In an email to Broadly, a CBP spokesperson acknowledged that Pagoada had informed officers that she was pregnant, but insisted that there was “no evidence to indicate Ms. Pagoada requested medical attention or appeared to be in need of medical attention at any time during her temporary detention by CBP.”)

The next day — Monday, July 24 — Pagoada was transferred to Otay Mesa Detention Center, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in San Diego operated by CoreCivic, a publicly traded, for-profit corporation. That first week in Otay Mesa, staff from ICE’s Health Service Corps gave Pagoada urine and blood pregnancy tests as part of a routine series of medical exams. They told her immediately that the urine test was negative, which confused her. Pagoada knew that she was pregnant, she asserts: Only a few days earlier, on July 20, she had visited a doctor in Tijuana, Mexico, who prescribed her prenatal vitamins, folic acid, Tylenol, and an electrolyte-rich drink.

“I was eagerly awaiting the birth of my baby, and I didn’t know why God had done that to me. I wanted to die."

Then, on July 29 — less than a week after she was transferred into ICE’s custody and given the pregnancy test ICE claims was negative — Pagoada claims that she went to see medical staff to get the results of her blood test, and that during that appointment, they told her that she had miscarried. “The doctor told me that she was so sorry for my loss, that she wished there was something she could have done, and that she didn’t know how this happened,” Pagoada told Broadly. Immediately after the appointment, Pagoada relayed what medical staff had told her to Guerra, and she testified to the same under oath a month later to an immigration officer during an asylum interview.

“I was eagerly awaiting the birth of my baby, and I didn’t know why God had done that to me. I wanted to die,” she said.

In a statement to Broadly, an ICE spokesperson refuted Pagoada’s claims, insisting that she was never pregnant during her time in ICE’s custody. ICE officials maintain that the results of her pregnancy tests were never in question, and that medical staff records indicate that Pagoada was informed again that she was not pregnant during her July 29 appointment.

Pagoada’s ordeal is one of 10 brought to light in a recent administrative complaint filed against ICE by seven advocacy organizations, including the ACLU, the American Immigration Council, and the Women’s Refugee Commission. The complaint alleges that ICE has been failing “to abide by its own policy against detaining pregnant women.”

According to an August 2016 policy memo — which ICE has confirmed is still in effect — ICE should only detain pregnant women under “extreme circumstances,” which go undefined, or if they’ve committed a crime that makes their detention “mandatory.” Otherwise, considering pregnant women’s “particular needs and vulnerabilities,” they should be paroled to family or other caretakers while their asylum or deportation cases proceed.

But what should be prevailing policy often doesn’t reflect reality. Victoria Lopez, the legal director of the ACLU of Arizona, told Broadly that she started getting calls this spring from immigration attorneys complaining that they had pregnant clients in ICE detention, and they were having a hard time getting them out on parole. They questioned the standing of the 2016 policy memo, especially as stories of possible medical neglect of pregnant women started to surface – like that of a woman detained in Tacoma, Washington, who waited for emergency medical treatment for over an hour as she bled, eventually miscarrying around six weeks into her pregnancy.

As recently as this month, a health scare at Otay Mesa — the facility where Pagoada is held — raised more concerns about pregnant women not being paroled: On November 11, fumes from a chemical that guards gave to detainees to strip the floors poisoned at least 20 women, causing reactions like coughing, vomiting, fainting, and asphyxiation. That day, the block held nine pregnant women, and according to Pagoada, four of them became visibly ill. A spokesperson from ICE confirmed that the block held nine pregnant women that night, but added that “none reacted to the chemical.”

"I felt like I was going to die. All food disgusted me; I was so sick, I couldn’t eat. I just prayed to God."

Of the 10 cases in the complaint to ICE, including Pagoada’s, six involve pregnant women who were denied release at least once. Six of the women had children with them when they were detained. A 23-year-old woman from El Salvador came into ICE detention at one month pregnant, and was reportedly detained for six months. Another 23-year-old, also from El Salvador, came into ICE custody at 12 weeks pregnant. She was reportedly transferred between ICE facilities no fewer than six times in three months — including a bus trip from New Mexico to Laredo, Texas, and a subsequent return trip soon afterwards, totaling 23 hours, after which she had to be hospitalized for exhaustion and dehydration.

“I felt like I was going to die,” said another woman, Sara, who fled Honduras after a violent rape and was held in detention while pregnant along with her nine-year-old daughter. (Sara is the pseudonym used in the complaint to ICE; she spoke to Broadly on condition of anonymity because of fears regarding her immigration status.) “All food disgusted me; I was so sick, I couldn’t eat. I just prayed to God.”

A recent report from the Women’s Refugee Commission on women asylum seekers in the US also found that pregnant women in ICE detention are routinely denied adequate services and accommodations, including extra blankets, prenatal care, and time to rest during work detail. The report describes some pregnant women becoming so desperate that they give up their asylum cases and accept deportation. In one case, a woman reportedly accepted deportation “back into the hands of her abusive partner” because she feared she might lose her pregnancy if she stayed in custody.

Limited agency statistics paint a murky picture of the plight of pregnant women in ICE detention. According to a statement from ICE, the agency detained a total of 525 pregnant women in the 2017 fiscal year, and 353 between February and September 2016. Without month-by-month numbers or data on the duration of detention, it’s unclear whether the rate of ICE detention of pregnant women or length of time detained are on the rise, and public data on the outcome of parole requests for pregnant women don’t exist.

However, according to a recent report from Human Rights First, ICE has “largely refused” to grant parole to asylum seekers ever since President Trump issued an executive order in January instructing the Department of Homeland Security to “ensure the detention of aliens apprehended for violations of immigration law.” (ICE and CBP are agencies within Homeland Security.) This seems to be in step with the Trump administration’s effort to increase immigration detention capacity from the current average of 38,000 beds to 48,000, for which the White House requested an additional $1.2 billion in the 2018 federal budget.

Pagoada has been considered for parole three times since she entered ICE detention in July, according to her attorney, Allegra Love. In the first instance, in August, Love submitted a request for Pagoada’s release on humanitarian parole. Later that month, ICE called Love to inform her that her request had been denied, refusing to provide a written confirmation or a reason for the denial, according to Love. Without a reason, Love couldn’t appeal the decision. Then, on October 20, Pagoada was up for a routine 90-day review of her detention. ICE denied her parole then by ticking off a box on a standardized form indicating that Pagoada was a “flight risk.” Finally, Love sent another request for humanitarian parole, which arrived to ICE on October 24. An ICE official responded three days later by re-sending the denial form the agency had issued on October 20.

“I can’t express this enough: They have provided me with no explanation for anything,” said Love.

Pagoada says that, after her miscarriage diagnosis, she continued to bleed regularly for another month and fell into a deep depression. She claims that she had asked medical staff for a procedure to remove the remnants of her pregnancy – a procedure she had received after her previous miscarriages – but says she was told that her body would expel the pregnancy naturally. Her bleeding and pain eventually got so bad that on many days she couldn’t get out of bed. She credits her cellmates with helping her survive during that time.

“When the doctor gave me the diagnosis, me cellmates saw me crying,” she told Broadly. She says they helped her do everything from get out of bed to shower. They bought her oatmeal from the commissary. One older woman shared her chocolate with Pagoada, saying it would help with the bleeding.

Pagoada also says that, prior to coming to the United States, she took aspirin pills to keep her blood from clotting, and during her past pregnancies, she received bi-weekly anticoagulant injections to manage her blood syndrome. In detention, she says she only received ibuprofen to manage the pain following her miscarriage, but that was eventually taken away by medical staff, who told her that she would need to see an outside provider and retrieve her medical records from El Salvador. “Essentially, they’ve told her that they can’t treat it because they can’t diagnose it, but they also won’t let her see someone who can,” said Love. Pagoada has not yet been allowed to leave the facility to see a specialist.

When asked about allegations that medical staff won’t treat Pagoada, ICE officials only responded, “According to ICE Health Service Corp records, Ms. Pagoada has a referral pending for an off-site appointment with a hematologist.”

“I am concerned that I could at any time suffer a stroke or seizure,” Pagoada said in a sworn declaration attached to her latest parole request. She continues to experience irregular bleeding, numbness in her face, and severe headaches, and she says her weight has dropped to fewer than 90 pounds from her usual 110.

Since ICE insists that she was never pregnant, Pagoada still has not been examined by a gynecologist following her claimed miscarriage. “I was pregnant, and my health didn’t matter to them,” she said. She’s been in detention for four months.


Funding for this reporting was provided by the Global Migration Project at the Columbia Journalism School.