How many Montana sheriffs would be eager to have more pregnant prisoners in their jails? The extra costs associated with maternal health care, the risks of incarceration having ill effects on the woman and child and liability issues would loom large. If a pregnant woman didn’t absolutely need to be locked up for a serious crime, the courts and law enforcement would find a way to release her with appropriate conditions.
In recent years, that was the policy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Even as the Obama administration reportedly deported more immigrants than any previous administration, it instituted a policy of “presumptive release” for pregnant women and teens. The policy directed that “absent extraordinary circumstances or the requirement of mandatory detention, pregnant women will generally not be detained by ICE.”
Last week, ICE announced that it has discarded the policy. The agency said in a statement: “To better align with the President’s Executive Order, ICE has ended the presumption of release for all pregnant detainees. Instead, as with all detainees except those in cases of mandatory detention, ICE will complete a case-by-case custody determination taking any special factors into account.”
There doesn’t appear to be any showing that the presumptive release policy was a problem. Immigration cases can take years to work through the system as immigrants apply for asylum or other legal avenues to stay in the United States.
The day after the policy change became public, a trio of U.S. health care organizations denounced it. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Family Physicians expressed “serious concerns” in a letter to interim ICE Director Thomas Homan.
The new policy “puts the health of women and adolescents and their pregnancies at great risk,” the physician groups wrote. “As health care providers for women and adolescents, we urge you in the strongest possible terms to reverse this decision.”
Pregnant women and adolescents have experienced poor access to medical care and are highly vulnerable to sexual assault in immigration detention facilities, the physician groups said, continuing: “A growing body of evidence suggests that maternal psychological state can negatively affect fetal and child development, and practices like shackling during pregnancy, which have been reportedly used at ICE facilities, have serious negative physical and mental health impacts on pregnant women.”
Detention of pregnant women was already a growing concern among immigrant-rights groups. In September, a coalition, including the Women’s Refugee Commission, filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security citing media reports that 292 pregnant women were detained by ICE in just the first four months of 2017, a 35 percent increase compared to the same period in 2016, The Nation reported.
Last week, ICE reported having 35 pregnant women in custody — all with mandatory detention — as of March 20 and having detained 506 pregnant women since December when it changed the policy.
Some women detained by ICE have been raped and that violence is the reason for their journey to the United States or may be part of a claim for asylum, Michelle Brané of the Women’s Refugee Commission told CNN. Mandatory check-ins or ankle bracelets would be more humane and less expensive for taxpayers than detaining pregnant women, she said.
Government should enforce laws with compassion for people who are nonviolent, have been traumatized and are seeking a better life. The Trump administration is abandoning compassion and common sense. ICE should take the U.S. doctors’ advice: restore the presumptive release policy.