Why Did It Take a Sterilization Scandal to Retrigger Our Outrage Over ICE?

What’s happening in immigration detention centers should get attention no matter what is uncovered about forced hysterectomies.

Wooten speaks to the press
Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, at a news conference Tuesday in Atlanta. AP Photo/Jeff Amy, File

Azadeh Shahshahani has spent years imploring people in power to do something about two notorious detention centers in rural Georgia. She and her colleagues at the advocacy group Project South had heard countless horror stories from detained immigrants about abuses they had faced at the privately run Stewart Detention Center and Irwin County Detention Center. In 2017, they published reports from Stewart detainees whose severe illnesses and injuries were treated only with ibuprofen, even when they had broken bones. Women at Irwin told them people were regularly fainting from hunger and that diseases were spreading like wildfire while staff ignored them. When people began dying at alarming rates at Stewart, Project South wrote letters to Georgia’s congressional delegation requesting an investigation. They’ve written a lot of letters over the years, without getting much of a response.

“We’ve been to the U.N.,” she said. “We’ve been to the Inter-American Commission [on Human Rights], just asking for some attention and for accountability. It’s been really frustrating because, you know, at Stewart, people keep dying, and at Irwin, the conditions keep getting worse in the midst of the pandemic … and it’s like, what is it going to take for the people in power to take a look at what is happening at this facility?”

This week, Shahshahani was caught completely off guard when something finally broke through. That would be the whistleblower complaint she and her team compiled and submitted on behalf of Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at Irwin, which stopped the news cycle in its tracks this week. The complaint primarily discussed the squalid conditions and violations of COVID-19 protocols at Irwin, but buried toward the bottom, Wooten and several anonymous detainees alleged that many women at the facility had been subjected to unnecessary hysterectomies without consent by a gynecologist known as “the uterus collector.” The hysterectomy allegation was first highlighted by LawandCrime.com, under the headline “ ‘Like an Experimental Concentration Camp’: Whistleblower Complaint Alleges Mass Hysterectomies at ICE Detention Center.” The disturbing reports that a doctor was sterilizing women without their informed consent quickly blew up. Soon it had generated accusations that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was running a genocidal eugenics program. In the following days, other news outlets have raced to corroborate the claims of mass hysterectomies.

Suddenly, Project South was flooded with calls from congressional staffers and investigative reporters who wanted to know more. The Department of Homeland Security and Congress have launched probes. Investigative reporters identified the gynecologist at the center of the allegations within hours as Mahendra Amin. Attorneys have come forward on behalf of more women who say they were subjected to unnecessary surgeries that included hysterectomies. The AP spoke with several women who had surgeries done by Amin without giving fully informed consent, but said they could not find evidence of mass hysterectomies as alleged.

One of these women, Pauline Binam, woke up from surgery to discover one of her fallopian tubes had been removed, according to her attorney, her mother, and an August 2019 psychiatric report provided to news outlets. She was nearly deported on Wednesday morning, but members of Congress intervened and she was pulled off a plane headed for Cameroon, a country she had not lived in since she was 2 years old. ICE said she was pulled off the plane due to a paperwork error, not because of congressional pressure. Retaliation against the women who spoke up was expected—Shahshahani said that’s why they withheld names in the complaint in the first place. Retaliation has happened before at this very detention center: Several women at Irwin secretly made a video in April begging for help and describing filthy conditions and overcrowding as the pandemic worsened. Soon after the video was picked up by media, they were reportedly taken from their dorm, many in handcuffs, and put in solitary confinement.

Still, the videos begging for help barely made a dent in public consciousness. At the time, the pandemic had shut down large swaths of the world. And, after all, American news consumers have gotten accustomed to family separation, the creation of tent camps for migrants, reports of sexual assault and human rights abuses inside detention centers. So why are the detained women finally getting a response now? “Given that we’re in the midst of the pandemic, we thought that folks would be very focused on the level of care or lack of care being provided to people in detention,” Shahshahani said. “I guess we had not expected such a level of attention to [the hysterectomies]—which is really important. I mean, I’m glad that folks are finally paying attention to what is happening.”

The idea that ICE was running an “experimental concentration camp,” as one anonymous person said in the complaint, seems to have jolted something loose. The allegations have caused more of an uptick in moral outrage, perhaps particularly because of the way they’ve been framed as being comparable to concentration camps. And the allegations evoke the United States’ long history of forced sterilization, which is often connected to racism. But as Dahlia Lithwick explained, the texture of what forced sterilization looks like in America these days isn’t exactly what the language of a “uterus collector” evokes. The battle here is murkier, and frequently more difficult to prove, precisely because power imbalances and language barriers complicate the issue of informed consent.

Still, Shahshahani is relieved at the response. “We’re talking about Black and brown immigrant women who are in a very vulnerable situation and have no control over what’s happening to their bodies,” Shahshahani said. “So definitely this issue is receiving well-deserved attention.” She’s also puzzled why it took so long. “I have to say, there are human rights violations happening at the facility that have been happening for years. This is not a stand-alone issue.”

ICE initially dismissed the hysterectomy claims as “anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics.” Once attorneys representing women began coming forward with fact-checkable specifics, the ICE Health Service Corps released a statement saying the agency “vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures.”

ICE seems to be banking on the likelihood that ongoing investigations will fail to reveal a Josef Mengele–type regime intentionally and diabolically experimenting on immigrant women. The evidence thus far points to one doctor who may have taken advantage of women in the custody of an indifferent and often hostile government agency. Amin’s attorney, meanwhile, has told the press that he and his client believe the investigations will clear Amin of any wrongdoing. But the surgeries, and the issues of informed consent, are entirely consistent with ICE’s attitude toward immigrants’ health, including their reproductive health. Miscarriages experienced by migrants in detention have nearly doubled under the Trump administration. ICE has largely shrugged at multiple reports of pregnant people suffering increased risks and complications in detention. Abuses that do not rise to the level of eugenics are still inhumane, and in dire need of response.

“People need to be looking at the full picture,” Shahshahani said. “In addition to accountability for individual people who have performed these procedures and abuses, there has to be accountability for ICE and the private prison corporation because these are the entities that are holding these women.”

Shahshahani emphasized that, if the allegations are borne out, it won’t be sufficient to simply discipline one doctor or force officials to resign. Even leaving aside the allegations of forced sterilization, the advocates who filed the complaint argue there is ample evidence to shutter both Irwin and Stewart detention centers for good. “We don’t think that these facilities are going to be repaired,” she said. “We don’t want to make them prettier. We want to shut them down.”