Earlier this month, we celebrated Mother's Day while thousands of immigrant women across the country were separated from their children and families. They were imprisoned in the more than 250 facilities nationwide including the two in Georgia which currently detain women.
Women in immigration detention facilities including the Irwin County Detention Center and the North Georgia Detention Center face particularly painful circumstances as the ACLU of Georgia documented in our report released last year, "Prisoners of Profit: Immigrants and Detention in Georgia."
Victims of Abuse
Women often end up in detention because they were victims of abuse. More than half of the women we interviewed had been victims of domestic violence. Veronica and Maria Francisco, two women detained at the North Georgia Detention Center, said they had never called the police when they were being beaten by their partners because they were afraid of being arrested and deported, which would hurt not only them but their children as well. Maria's husband actually threatened to call ICE and have her deported if she complained about the beatings. She believed him and never called for help. Her worst fears came true when she was finally arrested after police arrived at her home in response to a domestic violence call.
Separation From Families and Children
Many of the women we interviewed were worried for their children because they were no longer with any immediate relatives or living at their own homes. Dulce Bolanos Estrada, who fled to Georgia from New Orleans to escape an abusive husband, has never been convicted of a crime. When she was detained, her young children (ages two, five, and seven), all U.S. citizens, were staying with relatives because she was their only caregiver. Her detention, she said, had torn apart the home she kept together.
Clara, who had already received her final removal order, was terrified that her children, U.S. citizens, would be sent to their abusive father or put in state custody because she was told she would be deported regardless of the dates of her pending custody case. Because she could not afford an attorney, she had many questions about the future well-being and rights of her children, and she had no idea to whom she could turn.
Maria Francisco has four U.S. citizen children; two of them are still too young to attend school. They had been living with a relative since Maria's detainment. She did not know what she would do if she were deported. She wanted her children in good schools because as Americans, they deserved to attend American schools. She had not seen her children at all in the two months she had been detained.
Veronica's children, all three of whom are U.S. citizens, were back in Mexico because she had no family or friends who could provide a safe place for her children to live in the U.S. At the time we spoke with her, Veronica had been detained for almost four months, and the extent of her record was a ticket for driving without insurance or a license.
Women face particular obstacles pertaining to their reproductive health in detention. When Natalia Elzaurdia was detained at the North Georgia Detention Center in May 2011, she and her fiancé were expecting their first child. At intake, Natalia told the nurse at the medical unit that she was four months pregnant. The nurse then conducted a urine test, and told Natalia that she was not pregnant. Natalia asked her to call the Gwinnett County Detention Center where she had previously taken two pregnancy tests. The nurse refused to call and conducted a chest xray against Natalia's protestations. Natalia asked for a blood test instead. The next day a blood test confirmed she was pregnant.
Natalia had requested to see a gynecologist as soon as she entered NGDC. At the time of the interview, days after she put in her request, she had yet to see a gynecologist. "I put in requests to two nurses and my deportation officer and still my concerns have not been addressed. I experience cramps in my abdomen daily. I want an ultrasound; I haven't been given one yet and I'm four months pregnant." Although she requested to see a doctor, Natalia only saw nurses. Natalia's family wrote to the warden and other NGDC officials, as well as DHS regarding Natalia's treatment, but never received a response.
Women often face inadequate hygiene conditions in detention, jeopardizing their health. At Irwin, the underwear women receive upon arrival is often used, even showing stains or signs that it is not properly washed. Veronica was issued soiled undergarments at intake and she asked if she could have clean ones. She was refused and told to wear what she was given. As a result of wearing the soiled undergarments, Veronica developed a serious infection that ultimately left scars on her legs and genitals.
In the spring of 2011, a rash broke out among the women in one unit at Irwin, and most of them had painful bumps on their chests. In July 2011, another women's unit had a similar rash outbreak, and one woman had the rash spread across her back and side. None of the women interviewed ever found out why these outbreaks occurred, or what exactly they had contracted.
Daniela Esquivela told us that women detained at the North Georgia Detention Center are given a pack of sanitary napkins for when they are menstruating, but that they must ask for more once they run out. The guards only give out three or four at a time, and if the women need more, they have to keep going back to ask for more. Geraldine Ayala also added that they sometimes have to wait to get more sanitary napkins because "they run out."
The quality and quantity of the food in detention is often lacking, especially affecting pregnant women. The schedule of the meals at the North Georgia Detention Center posed particular concern for Natalia in light of her pregnancy. Natalia stated that "the feeding times are ridiculous; there are thirteen hours between dinner and breakfast." Although Natalia was eventually given increased portions due to her pregnancy, she was not given meals more frequently. In addition, it took two or three days once her request was approved for the portions to increase.
Need for Reform
It is past time to close down the worst immigration detention centers in the country and treat detention as the last resort rather than throw immigrants in jail-like conditions -- including individuals who have been here for years, those who have only committed minor violations, those who have U.S. citizens and relatives as spouses or children, and those who have strong claims to remain in the United States.
The immigration reform bill introduced recently in the Senate contains important detention reforms, such as prompt bond hearings, alternatives to detention in immigration jails, and oversight of detention facilities. The bill also recognizes the importance of appointed counsel for those with mental disabilities, unaccompanied children, and other vulnerable populations.
We must continue to fight every step of the way to ensure immigration reform achieves a roadmap to citizenship for immigrants and an immigration process that respects the civil rights and liberties of immigrants, including women in deportation proceedings. With the hope that next Mother's Day, all detained immigrant mothers will be reunited with their families.