Elizabeth was detained when her baby was just 4 months old. She is part of a class-action petition and complaint that includes 14 women who claim they suffered medical abuse while in immigration custody.
Elizabeth was only 8 years old when her mother brought her into the US from Guadalajara, Mexico. Her mother came to this country for a better life, just like “all immigrants that come to the United States,” she said during a press conference on Dec. 22.
Thirteen years later, Elizabeth, who uses a pseudonym for safety reasons, sits at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in Ocilla, Georgia, where she has been for the past five months. She was detained after calling 911 to report being physically abused by her boyfriend.
When she was 20 years old, Elizabeth, who was raised in Florida, began a relationship with someone she thought was “the perfect guy,” but turned out to be a “monster” soon after moving in together. She said he was verbally, physically, and emotionally abusive. In an interview with The Americano, Elizabeth recounted that she planned to leave her boyfriend, and move back in with her mother and continue her education. But detention ended her hopes for the future.
“I was going to do everything right for my daughter; unfortunately, this happened,” Elizabeth said.
When she finally decided to leave him, Elizabeth said he beat her. She called the police for help, but the officers ended up detaining her because of her undocumented status. It’s not uncommon for authorities to arrest undocumented women during such circumstances, which is why some undocumented women living in abusive households fear calling the police for help. (Federal programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Violence Against Women Act, and I-360 petition are available for undocumented people who qualify and can protect them from deportation.)
Elizabeth was forced to leave her baby girl behind, who was just 4 months old at the time.
Uniting to Take Their Fight to Court
Now 21, Elizabeth is part of a class-action petition and complaint that includes 14 women who claim they suffered medical abuse, neglect, and retaliation while in immigration custody. The defendants in the case include officials from the government, ICDC, and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as Dr. Mahendra Amin, the so-called “uterus collector.”
In total, more than 40 women have filed sworn testimony in court that reveals allegations of unnecessary and forced medical treatment, including unwanted gynecological surgeries and other medical interventions.
The inhumane treatment of migrant women came to light on Sept. 14 when Dawn Wooten, a licensed practical nurse employed by ICDC, came forward to expose “jarring medical neglect” at ICDC. Wooten said that ICDC officials refused to test detained immigrants for COVID-19 who had been exposed to the virus and were symptomatic. Wooten also claims that detention workers shredded medical requests submitted by detainees and fabricated medical records. Detained immigrants and ICDC nurses also reported high rates of hysterectomies done on immigrant women.
Amin is the gynecologist accused of performing unnecessary or unwanted medical procedures. Earlier this month, lawyers filed medical grievances against the Georgia Composite Medical Board seeking to revoke Amin’s medical license.
“It’s Like I Don’t Have Control Over My Body”
Elizabeth had given birth just four months before being detained. She said she never went for her six-week postpartum checkup after giving birth because she was afraid of contracting COVID-19, so she decided to seek help while in detention. Elizabeth asked for an appointment with Amin and requested a Pap smear because she was experiencing abdominal pain.
During her appointment in September, the female police escort took off Elizabeth’s shackles and handcuffs so she could undress.
“He comes in and doesn’t even acknowledge me,” Elizabeth said about the first time she saw Amin. “His demeanor is very intimidating. He was very standoffish.”
She claims Amin never explained anything about the procedure and just told her to open up her legs.
“As soon as he said that, it’s like I don’t have any control over my body,” Elizabeth said. Amin then proceeded to “stick the tube” inside Elizabeth, she said, which she recognized as a transducer for a transvaginal ultrasound.
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According to Elizabeth, Amin quickly removed the transducer and told her that she had a cyst on her left ovary and he would give her a Depo shot, a form of birth control that contains the hormone progestin and prevents pregnancy and ovulation for about three months.
“I didn’t know what a Depo shot was,” Elizabeth said. “But since he was a doctor and I was already scared, and I felt like I had no word in this whole thing, I didn’t ask any questions.”
Elizabeth got dressed, and another nurse returned to administer the Depo shot. Elizabeth said she was then placed in handcuffs once again. When the nurse returned, she handed her a form to sign. Elizabeth said she couldn’t hold the paper or read it because of the handcuffs, so she just signed it.
When Elizabeth got in the van to be transported back to ICDC, a fellow detained woman asked her if she, too, had received the “shot to not have babies.”
“Oh, is that what that was?” Elizabeth recalled responding.
Elizabeth said she had never been on birth control prior to that moment mainly because her mother and sisters always had a negative physical experience with it. After her procedure, Elizabeth said she experienced those exact negative reactions: bleeding, weight gain, and depression.
“The people that we trust, the medical, the staff, we can’t trust them anymore. We want to feel safe,” she said.
At the time of publication, Amin’s lawyer had not responded to The Americano’s request for comment on the allegations.
In September, Amin told The Intercept, which first reported Wooten’s complaint, that he had only performed one or two hysterectomies in the past three years. His attorney, Scott Grubman, said in a statement to the Associated Press, “We look forward to all of the facts coming out, and are confident that once they do, Dr. Amin will be cleared of any wrongdoing.”
In response to the claims, ICE Acting Director Tony Pham, who has since stepped down, said, “If there is any truth to these allegations, it is my commitment to make the corrections necessary to ensure we continue to prioritize the health, welfare, and safety of ICE detainees.”
LaSalle Corrections, which operates ICDC, said in a statement to the AP that it “strongly refutes these allegations and any implications of misconduct.”
Inhumane Treatment and Filthy Conditions
Elizabeth said she’s not asking to “just free her and let her go,” but she would like to fight her immigration case outside of detention because of the staff’s inhumane treatment and horrid conditions inside the detention center.
“To me, this is the worst thing that has happened,” Elizabeth said. “Not only because they took my freedom, but because I haven’t been able to be with my daughter.”
She added, “The place is filthy. They are very inhumane, in every aspect, I would say. We asked for cleaning supplies. They wouldn’t give them to us.”
The lawsuit calls for an immediate end to retaliation against women for speaking out, compensation for the harms they have suffered, and writs from the court requiring ICE to make the women available to fully participate in the lawsuit or release the women from the detention center. Alongside the complaint, the groups filed a motion for a temporary restraining order.
Advocates also seek the return of the women who have been deported after speaking out, as the evidence of neglect and violence continues to grow. However, the exact number of deported women who are tied to this case is unclear. On Nov. 12, members of Congress also urged ICE to refrain from deporting witnesses and victims in ongoing investigations into allegations of medical mistreatment at ICDC.
Advocates say they want the incoming Biden administration and Congress to correct the wrongs of Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda by closing ICDC and investigating all ICE officers and contractors.
Despite fearing possible retaliation from ICDC workers, Elizabeth said she doesn’t regret coming forward and sharing her story.
“Of course, I am scared because we’re still in immigration custody, and I don’t know when they could do something to us, but I am glad that we are finally speaking up because now we know that we have a voice and that we are not alone,” she said.
In response to the lawsuit, an ICE representative told The Americano that they are unable to comment on pending litigation. “Additionally, all these matters are currently being investigated by the Department of Homeland Security and Office of Inspector General. ICE is fully cooperating with that investigation.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.