Undocumented immigrant women struggling with severe medical issues ranging from a brain tumor to painful cysts say they are being denied proper care at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Mississippi, sometimes waiting more than a month for appointments with specialists or dismissed by medical professionals who didn’t understand their concerns.
Four detained women shared their stories with lawyers with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas-based legal advocacy group working on their cases. The women detailed a dire picture of life in detention: one woman was barely able to eat or move due to pelvic pain but treated only with pain medication; another suffered migraines because she was unable to have fluid drained from her face, a treatment needed to deal with her brain tumor.
If these women remain in detention, the consequences could be dire, said Andrea Meza, the director of family detention services at RAICES.
“Our biggest fear is that if we don’t get someone we’re working with out of detention, they are going to be the next person dying in ICE custody,” Meza said.
ICE did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on the migrant women’s allegations of poor medical treatment.
Medical care for detained immigrants is under intense scrutiny after multiple deaths this year ― six of them of children and teens ― in federal custody. Last year, a 21-month-old toddler died from a respiratory infection, after doctors failed to properly treat her respiratory infection when she was in ICE custody. A 16-year-old migrant died in May after being diagnosed with the flu at a hospital and sent back to a Border Patrol station, facilities that are freezing cold and overcrowded; earlier this month, ProPublica released video showing the government misled the public about his treatment. This week, the Department of Homeland Security’s official press Twitter account denigrated doctors who wanted to give migrants flu shots.
Doctors have repeatedly explained that detention has negative effects on the health of immigrants, especially if they are already sick. But instead of addressing these medical concerns, the Trump administration wants to extend the amount of time immigrants spend in detention.
For the past few months, RAICES has been advocating for roughly 700 women with health issues to be paroled out of detention or released on bond. But their advocacy has been stymied by the government, Meza said.
Originally, the hundreds of women with medical conditions were being kept at a detention center in Karnes City, Texas. HuffPost reported on how cancer patients were being denied medical treatment for up to three months, and that some women were in so much pain they could not sleep and had become suicidal. A medical expert previously told HuffPost that if anyone with a serious illness does not consistently visit a doctor, their health can rapidly deteriorate.
Just as RAICES began a campaign to release detained women with health issues, the immigrants were transferred to other facilities en masse at the end of September. It took the organization a month to relocate them, because the government had not properly tracked the immigrants’ locations, as HuffPost reported at the time. Lawyers from RAICES discovered that roughly 250 were transferred to Natchez, Mississippi, where they say they have been receiving poor or lax medical treatment at the privately run prison.
“Our biggest fear is that if we don’t get someone we’re working with out of detention, they are going to be the next person dying in ICE custody." Andrea Meza, director of family detention services at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services
During a visit to the facility last month, RAICES attorney Nicole Morgan spoke with a woman from Venezuela diagnosed with a brain tumor that had leaked and damaged her bones. The woman had a metal plate in her face for support, but doctors in Venezuela had advised she needed to have the liquid trained out of her face.
She was getting migraines from the build-up of fluid, which also made her face swell, and submitted four requests for medical treatment after arriving at the facility in late September. A month-and-a-half later she was taken to see a specialist who did not speak Spanish. He couldn’t understand her questions, and the only word of his she understood was “infection.”
Morgan said the immigrants can’t make informed decisions about their health, or understand what’s going on with their bodies, if they don’t speak the same language as their doctor.
“If I can’t explain to you all the things are wrong with me, how are you going to diagnose me?” she said.
A 24-year-old woman from Honduras, who said she has cysts in her breasts and ovaries, told a RAICES lawyer that despite repeated requests, she had to wait almost a month to visit a hospital. She could barely get out or eat due to pain in her stomach, and said the nurse at the detention center simply offered her Ibuprofen, which did nothing. When she started bleeding from her belly button, she said the nurse told her it was endometriosis, a disorder that involves tissue overgrowth in the uterus.
In all, RAICES has interviewed 24 of the women at the Mississippi facility and it is trying to find lawyers who can help obtain the release of immigrants with medical issues before their conditions progress.
But Meza said Mississippi lacks immigration attorneys who can visit these women in person, and that RAICES staff can’t easily call clients. She also said she thinks that keeping people detained in sub-par conditions is part of the Trump administration’s broader strategy.
“This is part of ICE’s concerted effort to keep migrants out of the country,” she said. “And if they are in the country, they are out of sight and away from access to medical care, legal help, and people who could advocate for them.”