Letter to the Editor: The Cruelty of ICE

The Pacifican
10 min readNov 28, 2020


By: Amnesty Club

He is the “uterus collector” who is “taking everybody’s stuff out,” says Dawn Wooten, a nurse who blew the whistle​ on the existence and extent of the hysterectomies and other nonconsensual gynecological procedures performed on detained immigrants. He is Dr. Mahendra Amin who works under discretion of Immigration & Customs Enforcement and ​Pauline Binam​ is one of his many victims. Now 30, she has spent the past 28 years in the U.S., with the last 3 in federal custody awaiting deportation. On September 16, 2020, ICE put her on a plane to Cameroon, a country she had left at the age of 2, but deportation plans were thwarted after two congress members got involved. Now, back in federal custody, she continues to be separated from her 11-year-old daughter. And surprisingly, that has not been the most grotesque injustice, because in 2019, she found herself stripped of her ability to have children. She agreed to surgery for a cyst on her ovaries, a procedure called dilate and curettage, but her doctor informed her afterwards that he had removed one of her Fallopian tubes due to a clog. He informed her that she was now likely to be infertile. Healthcare options for those in these centers are already scarce, and now it seems the ones available are set up to do irreparable damage.

What is the state of immigration detention centers in America?

After President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the new head of Immigration & Customs Enforcement claimed that the White House would finally be ​“taking the handcuffs off”and letting the organization do its job. This fiery declaration turned out to be a prophecy for the Trump Administration. Since taking office, President Trump has channeled his hardliner base into the implementation of anti-immigration policy. The people he appointed as heads of Citizenship and Immigration Services and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) were not only ​well versed in the use of law enforcement​ but determined to position immigrants as antagonists. Regardless, the White House has managed to shirk responsibility for the current family separation and migrant crisis by claiming that the cages were built under the Obama administration. ​In 2014, during Obama’s second term​, the media caught wind of the conversion of a warehouse in McAllen, Texas, into a temporary holding facility, complete with chain-link partitions, for up to 1,000 migrant children. The facility was meant to separate young men and women, and kids and adults until they could be better placed elsewhere. This trend has continued and the “temporary” status of these “chain-link partitions’’ has persisted. The Trump administration has since used Obama’s immigration policy as a justification for ICE expansion. During the third and final Presidential debate, moderator Kiristin Welker asked President Trump about the 545 children whose parents are unable to be located, to which he responded, “Who built the cages, Joe?”.

Yet, according to an ICE Operations report, 396,448 people were booked into detention centers in the fiscal year 2018 and an American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and National Immigrant Justice Center report claims that ​the detention system has expanded​ since 2017 during Trump’s tenure in office.

Despite the recently intense media focus on Trump’s relationship with ICE, the expansion of the detention system is hardly a new trend nor one that began with Obama. During Ronald Reagan’s tenure in office, the White House had to contend with a so-called ​“immigration crisis”​. Haitians and Cubans were arriving in the United States in large numbers to escape political persecution, repression, and economic collapse within their countries. The solution, which was incredibly controversial at the time, was to require detention for all arriving migrants including asylum seekers. In the short-term, there were legal repercussions. A judge ruled that t​he policy violated the Administrative Procedure Act​ which requires the administration and involved agencies to notify the public of changing policies. The Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit also ruled that the policy v​iolated the Equal Protection Clause​. However, just three years later, the Supreme Court of the United States ​overturned​ the Court of Appeals decision andCongress authorized the construction of a ​permanent immigration detention facility​ which also allowed private companies to partner with federal agencies to build and maintain future facilities.

Reagan’s new immigration policy was a grim foreshadowing of the enormous incarceration and detention system we would have in place today.

“I thought America was the land of the free. We are taken away from our homes and put into jaillike livestock, while our government makes money on us.”

Casey Kapijimpanga, a resident of Orange County, California, has been in the process of deportation since September 20, 2016. He is of African-British descent and has lived in the United States for over 20 years. Kapijimpanga has been an active member of his community; he owns a logistics and transportation business and has been part of the Huntington Beach Chamber of Commerce for five years. He was first detained in 2013 and spent over a year in the Theo Lacy Detention Facility in Southern California. Fortunately, Kapijimpanga was released in 2014 with the help of Congresswoman Judy Chu and ​Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement​ volunteers. After his release, however, he was detained once more while at his regular check-in after his stay removal was supposedly denied without notice. He was told by authorities that the letter regarding the denial of his stay removal must have not been sent to him or his lawyer. Because immigration had failed to notify either Kapijimpanga or his lawyer, he missed his chance to appeal. Since being detained he has lost his savings, his belongings, his apartment, and his livelihood. Still, he and his loved ones continue to spend countless hours and hundreds of dollars trying to end his isolation. In a ​heartbreaking piece about his experience, he states,

“This is the shame of America. This is the shame of Orange County.”

And Casey Kapijimpanga’s heartbreak isn’t unique. During the final Presidential debate, President Trump stated that the children are, “…well taken care of. They’re in facilities that are so clean.” Unfortunately, this is not the case; conditions within detention facilities are deadly. In fact, the treatment of migrants in ICE Detention Centers has proven to be worse than what would have been allowed for ​prisoners of war​ according to the Geneva Convention, a series of treaties that outline the international standards for humanitarian treatment. Last year, there were an estimated ​3,000 to 6,000 detainees​ that were in desperate need of mental health resources or treatment which only 21 of 230 facilities provide. Worse, the ​lack of basic sanitation​ such as showers, soap, toothpaste, diapers or ability to acquire those supplies from donors outside of the facilities is a clear human rights violation. The Trump administration has placed ​restrictions on aid​ that have severely limited the ability for outside organizations to be able to provide humanitarian aid within ICE Detention Centers.

Medical care within these facilities is another problem. Detainees can go ​weeks to months​ without seeing a professional for life-threatening conditions. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these already appalling conditions. Physicians for Human Rights have called out ICE Detention Centers for ​spraying detainees​ with HDQ Neutral Disinfectant multiple times a day which is a health hazard. Whistleblowers have also brought attention to ​hysterectomy operations​ done on migrant women without their informed-consent. All things considered, ICE Detention Centers are tools of torture akin to the American eugenics movement that ​inspired Nazi genocide tactics​.

Luckily, where there exists oppression, mistreatment, or genocide there exists resistance– in the form of sanctuary cities. While the term ‘sanctuary city’ does not have a widely accepted precise definition, areas in North America that do not cooperate with federal efforts to enforce immigration laws are typically recognized as sanctuary cities or regions. As of 2018, roughly ​half of all United States residents​ live in regions with sanctuary policies. In 2017, for example, ​SB 54 was passed in California, which prohibits “state and local law enforcement agencies […] from using money or personnel to investigate, interrogate, detain, detect, or arrest persons for immigration enforcement purposes” — the actions typically associated with sanctuary laws or policies. While these actions help protect immigrants, there are still ways in which local law enforcement may continue to cooperate with federal immigration agencies such as ICE.

The primary manner in which ICE collaborates with local law enforcement is the CriminalAlien Program (CAP). According to ICE, CAP helps allow ICE to identify possible immigrants with the use of databases provided by individual jail systems. It should be noted that cooperation with CAP is entirely voluntary. Another manner in which local law enforcement may collaborate with ICE is through ICE detainers, or immigration holds — requests from ICE to local law enforcement to hold a person for up to 48 hours in custody ‘beyond the time that the person would otherwise be released’ according to the ​ACLU​. Once again, collaboration in this manner on the part of local law enforcement is entirely voluntary. These requests from ICE are perceived to be constitutionally questionable, as the subsequent period of detention constitutes a new arrest, which “​violates the Fourth Amendment when there is no judicial warrant or probable cause”. ICE argues that “your community is ​put at risk​ when ICE detainers are ignored”, but such reasoning does not permit violations of due process. As a result of this ICE policy, the California TRUST Act, otherwise known as ​AB 4​, was passed into law in 2013, which prohibits local law enforcement from cooperating with ICE for immigration holds except when the individual detained has been convicted of a “​serious or violent felony​”. It is clear that California is making strides in avoiding cooperation with ICE, but there is still significant progress to be made. Notably, the ​2019 opinion​ of a federal appeals court in favor of the Trump Administration puts pressure on local governments by allowing the administration to give preferential treatment to “jurisdictions that assist in enforcing federal immigration laws” in awarding policing grants.

California is making big strides in immigration reform, particularly in targeting for-profit immigrant detention facilities. Assembly Bill 32, passed by Governor Newsom on October 11,2019 banned new private prisons and detention centers after January 1, 2020 and called for existing facilities to close by 2028. AB 32 is a necessary move to combat the expansion of for-profit industry within California, but there are still needs of immigrants who experience the system that need to be addressed. Assemblyman Rob Bonta, the author of AB 32, continued the fight for human rights and justice with an additional piece of legislation, Assembly Bill 3228, which increased accountability and oversight measures for private detention facilities in theState of California.

AB 3228 is a critical piece in the fight for getting justice for the folks who have been mistreated within detention facilities. The bill requires ​any​ immigration detention facility operator to follow standards within their federal government contracts and establishes a clearer standard of care that the facilities must follow. Moreover, it also provides a course of action for individuals to sue in the event the private detention facility operator violates their standard of care and their contract. This has big implications for detention facilities in California. Four of the five detention facilities within the state of California are operated by private actors, including GEO Group(Mesa Verde and Adelanto), Core Civic (Otay Mesa), and the Management and TrainingCorporation (MTC) (Imperial). When operation of facilities is headed by private actors and corporations, the underlying motivation of these companies is making a profit and protecting their bottom line. Proper treatment of individuals within their facilities is an afterthought at best. Oversight schemes headed by these private companies have continuously allowed them to violate the minimum standards of care. Even under previous ICE oversight, financial penalties were only imposed twice over a 3 year period and resulted in virtually zero accountability, which for these companies, wasn’t even a slap on the wrist.

Governor Newsom has begun to take steps to reduce such disparity in accountability with approving AB 32, and it’s getting noticed. The global human rights group, AmnestyInternational, expressed support for the Governor in increasing oversight in accountability ​in a letter to the Governor​ on September 4th of this year. In the letter, the group advocates for the need and the urgency of AB 3228. While there would be nothing better than ending the prison-industrial complex in its entirety, incremental change is necessary to ensure individuals don’t get forgotten about in the interim. Through the Federal Tort Claims Act immigrant detainees can sue the federal government for damages; however, the act only applied to public facilities. According to Eunice Cho, an attorney with the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union,​ the Act does not apply to prisons that are owned and operated by private companies.​ This has made it difficult for individuals in private facilities to sue for mistreatment when there was no clear path for resolution. The new legislation provides clarity in when and what individuals would be able to sue for while also carving a legal path for these individuals to take.

On August 17, 2016 Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP) filed a federal lawsuit against the government for the maltreatment that Suny Rodriguez and her son endured while in detention. Both Suny and her son were detained for months and under the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CDP) after leaving their homeland Honduras. They suffered inhuman conditions, threats of separation, and coercive tactics while being detained. After months they settled for $125,000 and on February 22, 2019 a judge approved their settlement.The lawsuit pursued legal action through the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) which seeks monetary compensation for parties that have suffered an injury due to negligent actions of those employed by the government. Being able to pursue a legal course of action through the FTCA was a large part in delivering justice to Suny and her son. With the passage of AB 3228 and the empowerment of legal advocacy it provides for individuals in for-profit facilities, the hope is that individuals in private facilities will be able to receive their justice too.

ICE claims their Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) has ​assisted 428 victims of human trafficking​, and “rescued or identified 1,069 victims” from child predators in FY19. However, in 2018, ICE lost contact with 1,475 immigrant children​ who had crossed the border and had subsequently been placed with sponsors. They could not account for these children because their sponsors could not be reached. Thus, there is no telling what the current state of these children is. And currently, ​545 children are unable to be placed with their parents​ because after being separated at the border under the Trump admin’s “Zero Tolerance” policy, the government has lost track of their parents. All things considered, ICE can hardly stand to laud itself on helping victims of human trafficking, or protecting children from abuse when they are the current face of child endangerment.

Still, there is hope on the horizon. Establishing legal recourse for migrants that have been abused by ICE is a critical first step to breaking down the human rights violations and oppression that occurs behind closed gates. However, to ensure that change continues we must take responsibility on a personal level. Continue to become more knowledgeable about the mechanisms of ICE detention centers and immigrant rights. Empower individuals with options and help foster a culture of accountability and change on the institutional level. Change is possible when we choose it.

One voice, your voice, carries power.



The Pacifican

Student-run newspaper at University of the Pacific in Stockton, California.