POLITICS

Women Are Being Denied Cancer Treatment, Psychiatric Help At ICE Detention Center

One woman has been denied cancer treatment for more than two months. Other detainees have attempted to kill themselves.
A storm comes in over the Karnes County Residential Center in South Texas, where some migrant women have been held for months
A storm comes in over the Karnes County Residential Center in South Texas, where some migrant women have been held for months.

Immigrant women being held in a Texas detention center say they are being denied proper medical care ― in some cases cancer treatment ― and have become suicidal after lengthy stays in the facility, according to interviews done this month by the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). 

The declarations, which were shared with HuffPost, detail women’s experiences at the Karnes County Residential Center, where they have been forced to stay in detention for up to four months instead of being released on parole or bond, even if they face serious physical and psychological illnesses, according to RAICES. 

One Congolese woman who was diagnosed with cancer in her uterus said she has not been taken to a specialist for treatment since being sent to Karnes at the end of July. The pain in her back and abdomen has become so bad that she sleeps only two hours a night, according to her declaration.  

Another woman from the Congo said that after experiencing severe leg and back pain while being detained in Karnes, a doctor in San Antonio told her there was a 90% chance she had cancer but that an additional biopsy was needed to confirm the diagnosis. Yet, since that appointment in early September, she told RAICES lawyers, she was put back in detention and has not been taken to a hospital. 

“I am having problems sleeping and am exhausted,” she said in the declaration, adding that she has been detained since June. “I am very worried about my health.” 

RAICES spoke with 800 women who experienced some type of medical issue while being held at the 29-acre property in South Texas, which can hold roughly 1,300 people and is surrounded by 15-foot fences. Lawyers heard stories of immigrants who haven’t received treatment for complications involving miscarriages and who have mental health issues that are going untreated. 

We’ve heard so many women talk to us about wanting to kill themselves. It’s only a matter of time before someone dies at Karnes. Andrea Meza, director of family detention services at RAICES

“We’ve heard so many women talk to us about wanting to kill themselves,” said Andrea Meza, the director of family detention services at RAICES. “It’s only a matter of time before someone dies at Karnes.” 

Karnes, which is typically used for family detention but has been holding women for the past six months, is expected to start detaining parents and their children again as early as next week. Immigration advocates told HuffPost that since the facility has failed to provide adults with adequate medical care, the conditions will be even more dangerous for vulnerable children.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement “is knowingly endangering migrants with the goal of deterring immigration at the southern border,” said Dana Gold, senior counsel at the Government Accountability Project. Gold represents two doctors who became whistleblowers after inspecting family detention centers for the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the Department of Homeland Security. “It’s really quite unconscionable.” 

ICE did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on the declarations. 

The lack of medical and psychiatric care in detention facilities and Border Patrol stations run by DHS is a widespread issue. Since December, six minors have died in federal custody, in many cases due to illnesses that were not properly treated and turned lethal. 

The unsanitary conditions in overcrowded Border Patrol stations where children could not brush their teeth or bathe regularly made headlines this summer, and in June, HuffPost wrote about a severely ill pregnant mother of two whom ICE detained and threatened to deport. 

In 2018, the two doctors who inspected family detention centers on behalf of the DHS office publicized their findings after they found children who had lost significant amounts of weight ― in one case, a sick 16-month-old who lost almost 32% of his body mass over 10 days and was never given IV fluids or sent to an emergency room ― and kids who had been given adult doses of a vaccine. They said the medical facilities and staffing were inadequate and that trauma-informed care was not being provided to children and their parents. 

The Karnes County Residential Center, shown here in 2014, was intended to be a detention center specifically for mothers rece
The Karnes County Residential Center, shown here in 2014, was intended to be a detention center specifically for mothers recently arriving from Central America with children.

Though there are systemic problems with the medical offices in detention centers, experts say the bigger issue is that children and adults should not be detained in the first place. They told HuffPost that everything from the use of solitary confinement to the bright lights that are left on during the night and the lack of healthful food exacerbates an immigrant’s health problems.  

“There’s a larger punitive approach that doesn’t align with our mission to care for patients,” said Dr. Altaf Saadi, a neurologist and an asylum evaluator for the Physicians for Human Rights Asylum Network, about medical services in detention centers. “Health is not the first priority.” 

Saadi said immigrants with serious physical or mental illnesses require consistent visits with doctors and need to have trusting relationships with their physicians, something they don’t have access to in detention. She said speedy treatment is a necessity, since diseases like cancer can progress quickly. But during Saadi’s visits to ICE detention centers in California and Texas, she’s seen immigrants who weren’t getting medication for chronic conditions such as diabetes, which resulted in harmful effects and could lead to complications such as heart attacks. She wrote a medical review for a man with a brain tumor who was not being treated. 

Saadi says detention also exacerbates an immigrant’s existing trauma. The government’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated families resulted in lasting mental health issues, such as kids being depressed and self-harming. The Trump administration is now seeking to replace the current 20-day limit on family detention outlined in a decades-old court agreement so that children and their parents can be kept together in detention centers indefinitely. 

But doctors told HuffPost that even when families are detained as a unit, they can experience toxic stress, which can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidal thoughts and long-term physical issues, such as high blood pressure and heart disease.

In Karnes, the women speak to psychologists over the phone rather than in person, according to their declarations. “I still feel sad and cry every day. I still have attacks,” said a woman who fled Sierra Leone. She said there are times when she cannot sleep or talk and she sobs uncontrollably.  

ICE officers can release asylum seekers who pose no risk to the community on parole or on bond while they are waiting for their immigration dates. But the Trump administration’s strategy has been to detain people for as long as possible, despite the cost and the evidence that those who are released still show up to immigration court, according to Michelle Brané, the director of the migrant rights and justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. 

Over the next few days, RAICES expects ICE to transfer all of the more than 1,000 women who were being held at Karnes to other facilities to make way for incoming families. But RAICES wants the government to stop detaining women with illnesses, since they will likely struggle with the same subpar medical treatment in other facilities. 

The organization, along with three members of Congress, have also called for Karnes to be shut down so that families won’t be subjected to the same medical and psychological problems that now exist there. 

“We know prolonged detention, especially for people who are fleeing trauma and violence, leads to depression,” said Meza. “The idea of putting families and children into this situation is horrifying.”

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