On September 14, 2020, a disturbing complaint about medical neglect and malpractice at the Irwin County Detention Center, run by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, was filed by nonprofits Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, and South Georgia Immigrant Support Network on behalf of detained immigrants at ICDC and licensed practical nurse employed by ICDC, Dawn Wooten.

Included in this complaint was ICDC’s refusal to follow health protocols in regard to sanitation and COVID-19, the facility’s fabrication of medical records and shredding of medical requests submitted by detainees, and claims of hysterectomies performed on women who did not consent to them. Wooten also explains in the complaint that proper language and interpretive services are not used to disclose medical information and procedures to Spanish-speaking migrants.

Forced sterilization, which is what these allegations claim, is genocide, as defined by the United Nations. Forced sterilization is also a massive part of American history

“I’ve had several inmates tell me that they’ve been to see the doctor and they’ve had hysterectomies and they don’t know why they went or why they’re going” says Wooten. One detained woman told Project South that she met five different women detained at ICDC who had a hysterectomy performed between October and December 2019. She stated, “‘When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp. It was like they’re experimenting with our bodies.”

The doctor involved in these procedures has possibly been identified as Amin Mahendra, who was once a co-defendant in a lawsuit in which he and other doctors were forced to pay $520,000 to “resolve allegations that they caused false claims to be submitted to Medicare and Medicaid.”

Several key figures in the US government have condemned this and speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has ordered an immediate investigation into Wooten’s allegations. ICE has responded to the complaint, which is mostly about COVID-19, but in reference to the hysterectomy accusations tells the public that “anonymous, unproven allegations made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve.”

Forced sterilization, which is what these allegations claim, is genocide, as defined by the United Nations. Forced sterilization is also a massive part of American history. While many are shocked and in utter disbelief to hear such claims, the truth is that this is not some new, dark chapter of the United States. The last legal forced sterilization was in 1981 in Oregon by the Oregon State Board of Eugenics. This board was officially abolished only in 1983.

There is this continued idea that people are inherently and genetically different from one another based on race, and this is a colonial construct which was originally used as justification for empire, as justification for brutality.

These claims have opened up the historical floodgates to an integral part of the fabric of American history: Eugenics, the selective breeding of human beings with “desirable” traits. It is the pseudoscience of determining which lives are worth living and which lives are not.

“Who were the undesirables?” asks Cherice Jones, a PhD student at Northeastern University studying rhetorics of race in medical writings. “They were those with mental illness, differently-abled people, ‘promiscuous’ white women, Native Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Latinxs, Black people, and disproportionally: Black and Indigenous women. Let us remember that Nazi Germany was inspired by U.S. eugenics. There are documented quotations from Hitler commending and urging Germany to look up to the U.S.”

“Even today in our medical journals we still write with antiquated colonial notions of difference. There is this continued idea that people are inherently and genetically different from one another based on race, and this is a colonial construct which was originally used as justification for empire, as justification for brutality.”

This colonial notion of difference Jones speaks of is key to this story. This is not solely a story about mass hysterectomies and forced sterilization. Let us remember the original complaint also includes ICE’s egregious handling of the coronavirus pandemic within their facilities. We have been reading and hearing about the atrocities ICE has been committing for years now. Separating families and children; putting children in cages; criminalizing pregnant migrants; refusing proper reproductive care to women; and more.

In her interview with MSNBC following the filing of the official complaint, Wooten says about ICDC that “the sanitation, especially during COVID… was horrible… we didn’t have anything to sanitize with, we didn’t have the proper PPE so they didn’t have the proper PPE…they didn’t have anything to sanitize with while they were down in the dorms as well and when you ask you will be reprimanded… the protocol was not being followed, it was not properly reported to the health department, it was not properly reported to the CDC, nor was it properly reported to LaSalle.”

Unchecked power leads to violence and abuse. Why does the US government allow facilities to hold people for days, weeks, and years but not enforce proper health, sanitary, and safety procedures for those people?

“This is a story about negligence,” says Matt Cameron, immigration attorney and adjunct lecturer at Northeastern University. “This is a very, very troubling example of something that can happen when you have no accountability and no oversight. You can’t hold people if you can’t treat them.”

Unchecked power leads to violence and abuse. Why does the US government allow facilities to hold people for days, weeks, and years but not enforce proper health, sanitary, and safety procedures for those people?

Jones states that “in our neoliberal era, we’ve somehow made basic care a commodity and something that requires money to receive. We’ve created this notion that healthcare is not a basic human necessity and right, that somehow only the rich and those who can afford it ultimately deserve to live.”

We currently have a system of “zero tolerance”; we currently have a system in which law enforcement is not held responsible for their violence; we currently have a classist and racist healthcare system. We have a system in place that allows for such brutalities like forcing undocumented immigrants to undergo sterilization with little to no consequences. The United States has an immigration system based on quotas, demographics, and the preservation of a white nationalist population. Our current system is the product and continuation of centuries of keeping the whiteness of America intact and separating and othering all that does not fit into that whiteness.

“Let’s be clear, these are not detention centers,” says Genesis Barco Medina, a PhD student at Northeastern University studying the rhetoric of immigration, public sphere theory, and community engagement. “They’re just prisons. Prisons specifically for people who are undocumented. There are prisons for people who are citizens. There are prisons for people who don’t belong here. We separate them. If we say you are undocumented, you are breaking the law, therefore you go to one these ‘detention centers.’ It doesn’t matter what happens to you because you aren’t deserving of the same types of protection a citizen would receive. It doesn’t matter if these hysterectomies are happening, it doesn’t matter if you are separated from your children. It’s a push further into marginalization. Undocumented people have the threat of literally being kicked out of the country and placed somewhere else. There are layers of separations and invisibility. It’s constant battle of invisibility. We see that with the hysterectomies that are happening.”

We need to remember that systemic racism does not just exist in the justice system, but also in healthcare, education systems, public policy, housing, hiring, and more,

These forced sterilizations Wooten has brought to the public’s attention are merely a snapshot of the larger forces of exploitation, erasure of immigrant identities and humanities, and marginalization. This complaint is not a one-off event – media covers these stories as such and sensationalizes suffering until either the public doesn’t want to hear about them anymore or the next story of suffering makes headlines. Wooten’s complaint is yet another instance revealing the inhumanity of our immigration system and the complacency of those in power.

We need to remember that systemic racism does not just exist in the justice system, but also in healthcare, education systems, public policy, housing, hiring, and more,” Jones tells me.

Systemic racism certainly exists in the immigration system. But this story is not characterized as one that is a product of racist systems. The hyper-focus on the allegations of forced sterilizations and the use of the term “uterus collector” through which many news publications are framing Wooten’s claims expunges the larger picture of how inhumanely immigrants are treated in the U.S., not just in the Trump era, but always, since the conception of this country.

Cameron states that “it’s the same system, it’s the same complete lack of accountability.”

It does not matter who is in charge. Yes, policies and rules were different under President Obama (who deported more undocumented immigrants than any other president with a focus on “criminals” rather than the general undocumented population and families and children), but the system is essentially the same and the existing system has made everything that is happening possible. The current administration is actively working to further martialize the immigration system. Trump enacted a Muslim ban; he called Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers; he has been enforcing stricter border regulations; he has made it possible for ICE to target undocumented immigrants who have been here for decades and have nothing more serious than a traffic ticket on their record.

Immigrants are human. We need systems in place that value human lives, not power and profit.

“Immigrants are defined by what is being done to them,” says Cameron.

How we talk about immigrants, how we are told to view them, what we see about them on the news – all of this plays a role in how we define immigrants. These marginalized populations continue to suffer because the systems we have in place in the U.S. are profit driven, not humanity centered. We will continue to hear these narratives put forth by a hegemony that profits off the suffering of marginalized populations. The true problem is that the conditions for this to happen even exist.

Immigrants are human. We need systems in place that value human lives, not power and profit.

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Dola Haque

By Dola Haque

Junior Weddings Editor