By Edward Sifuentes
After more than 40 days in an immigration detention facility, Maria Solis, an Oceanside pregnant mother, was released to her family on September 12.
Solis, who has had a history of difficult pregnancies, was in such fear for the health of her unborn baby that after weeks of detention she requested to be deported to her native Mexico – rather than risk another day incarcerated.
Calls for her release garnered widespread community support, including help from MomsRising, a nonprofit advocacy organization concerned with issues affecting mothers and families.
The ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties wrote a letter to ICE asking for her release.
Fortunately, ICE relented and released her.
But in the many news stories that were published about her case there was little mention of the fact that there are nearly 300 pregnant women in ICE custody nationwide. According to the agency, there were 292 pregnant women in immigration detention during the first four months of 2017. The number of women detained generally increased 35 percent compared to the same period in 2016.
The reason those figures are important is that the Department of Homeland Security has an Obama-era policy not to hold expectant mothers in its facilities unless there is some extraordinary reason.
Thus, the question is: Does the Trump administration intend to maintain the policy or not? The answer is not yet clear.
Seeking answers, the ACLU and other immigrant rights groups filed a complaint on September 26 with the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of pregnant women detained by ICE. The complaint requests that DHS look into cases of miscarriage and investigate and report the steps ICE has taken to implement and oversee its policies.
When attorneys for Solis requested in August that she be released, the agency denied the request in a two-sentence letter. The assistant field officer director at the Otay Mesa Detention Facility where she was being held wrote that after reviewing the case, Solis’ release was “not warranted.” He did not explain the reason for his decision.
The ACLU letter sent on September 11 asking that Ms. Solis be freed also requested if she was not allowed to go home, ICE should provide a detailed explanation of what extraordinary circumstances were being applied in her case to prevent her release.
There is no doubt that incarceration creates serious health risks for expectant mothers. The emotional and physical pressures inherent to detention produce unnecessary stress and trauma that can cause complications during pregnancy.
At least two women reported having miscarriages in the last two years while they were detained by ICE.
In recognition of these risks, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson issued a policy memorandum in 2014 dictating that absent “extraordinary circumstances” or the requirement of mandatory detention, the agency should not detain pregnant women. That policy was reiterated and expanded a year ago by the current acting ICE Director, Thomas Homan.
Solis clearly should never have spent such a long time in custody. Throughout her detention, there were reports of troubling incidents, such as inconsistent access to appropriate prenatal vitamins, fainting episodes, broken ultrasound machines in the medical facility, close exposure to cleaning chemicals, manual labor and harsh treatment by staff.
But the questions remain. Why was she denied her request for a discretionary release, why was she detained for 42 days and why are there so many pregnant women ICE custody?
The agency must answer these questions and be transparent about whether it plans to follow its own policy on detaining pregnant women in the future.
Edward Sifuentes is the Senior Communications Strategist for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties.