By Caitlin Dickerson
The Department of Homeland Security is investigating allegations that immigrant women detained at a privately run detention center in Georgia underwent gynecological procedures without fully understanding or consenting to them.
The allegations, some of which were submitted this week as part of a whistle-blower complaint by a nurse at the facility, already have prompted more than 170 members of Congress, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to call for an immediate inquiry.
The complaint details medical procedures ordered or undertaken by a physician who has treated patients detained at the Irwin County Detention Center, which is run by a private company, LaSalle Corrections, in Ocilla, Ga.
The nurse, Dawn Wooten, claims in the complaint that several women detained at the facility told her their uteruses had been removed without their consent, a claim The New York Times was unable to verify. One detainee whose testimony was included in the complaint said her medical treatment left her shaken and confused.
The woman, who like the others was not identified because she feared retaliation from immigration authorities, said she was transported this year to Irwin County Hospital for a procedure but was given three different explanations of what it would be, ranging from having her womb removed entirely to instead having a small amount of tissue scraped away.
Ultimately, the complaint says, the hospital declined to operate on the woman because she tested positive for antibodies to the novel coronavirus. But the woman said the experience left her “feeling scared and frustrated, saying it ‘felt like they were trying to mess with my body,’” the complaint said.
The hospital did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It was a defendant in a federal lawsuit alleging the creation of false Medicare and Medicaid claims that the government said resulted in overpayments. The case was settled and the defendants, including several doctors, agreed to pay $525,000 to the federal government.
Dr. Ada Rivera, the medical director of the ICE Health Services Corps, which oversees health care in the agency’s detention system, said that the reports would be fully and independently investigated, but that the agency “vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures.”
In a statement, he said that two women detained at the facility had been referred for hysterectomies since 2018. The agency did not respond to requests for information about how many of the referrals were acted on, nor how many tubal ligations or other potentially sterilizing procedures had been conducted in the past several years.
The complaint does not name any specific staff members, but the lawyers for several detainees who have come forward have said that they center on a particular doctor, Mahendra Amin, an obstetrics and gynecology specialist who practices in the nearby city of Douglas.
Scott R. Grubman, a lawyer for Dr. Amin, said he and his client “vehemently deny” the allegations. “Dr. Amin is a highly respected physician who has dedicated his adult life to treating a high-risk, underserved population in rural Georgia,” Mr. Grubman said in a statement.
He pointed to an admission made to The Washington Post by the lawyer who handled the filing of the complaint that she had not personally spoken with anyone who was sterilized without their consent, but that she included the secondhand reports in the document “with the intention of triggering an investigation into whether or not the claims were true.”
The complaint was filed by the organizations Project South, Georgia Detention Watch, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and the South Georgia Immigrant Support Network.
Two immigration lawyers representing women currently or previously detained at the facility in Irwin County, Elizabeth Matherne and Van Huynh, who were not included in the whistle-blower complaint, said their clients were also left shaken after being treated by Dr. Amin while in immigration custody.
Ms. Matherne said that at least half a dozen clients had complained to her about what they described as rough treatment by the doctor. Ms. Matherne lodged a request with ICE in the fall of 2018 on behalf of one of them, Nancy Gonzalez Hidalgo, who had an underlying medical condition that was worsening.
Ms. Matherne said her client was refusing to see Dr. Amin, who had treated her earlier, because she said the doctor had “hurt” her during previous exams. The doctor did not speak Spanish or use a translator to explain what he was doing, Ms. Matherne said her client told her.
Eventually, Ms. Gonzalez Hidalgo worsened to the point that she was running a fever and could not stop from crying or sit up straight during their in-person meetings because she was doubled over in pain, Ms. Matherne said.
The lawyer said she was so concerned after one of the meetings that she walked over to the facility’s inmate services coordinator and pleaded with the person to find another doctor for her client. Months later and after repeated follow-ups by Ms. Matherne, Ms. Hidalgo Gonzalez was eventually sent to another doctor who confirmed she had an infection in her uterus and prescribed her medication, after which she started to feel better. Ms. Hidalgo Gonzalez was eventually deported to her home country of Mexico.
“If they act like they had no idea there were issues with this doctor, they’re lying,” Ms. Matherne said. The other lawyer, Ms. Huynh, said her client Pauline Binam underwent a procedure for an ovarian cyst in 2019 that involved general anesthesia. When Ms. Binam woke up, Ms. Huynh said, Dr. Amin told her that he had removed part of her fallopian tube and that she would be unable to conceive without in vitro fertilization.
Ms. Binam, who was 29 at the time of the procedure, told Ms. Huynh that she would never have consented had she known there was a risk of infertility.
Ms. Huynh said her client, who has since been transferred to an ICE detention facility in Texas, had not had a period at all since the procedure. Ms. Binam was nearly deported on Wednesday morning, but two Democratic members of Congress, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Pramila Jayapal of Washington, rushed to contact ICE, and Ms. Binam was removed from the plane before it took off. “We need her to testify,” Ms. Jayapal said. “This story sends a chill through any woman.”
Also part of the whistle-blower complaint are allegations that the facility has not complied with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for containing the coronavirus. A total of 43 detainees there have tested positive for the virus, according to government data, and Ms. Wooten alleged in her complaint that officials at the facility knowingly placed healthy detainees near those who were sick and contagious.
There is a long history of substandard health and safety conditions in immigration detention facilities. Soon after President Trump took office, the administration moved to roll back detention standards that were meant to rectify the problem.
In 2019, staff members of the House Oversight Committee visited several detention facilities, including the Irwin County Detention Center, and wrote in a letter to ICE’s inspector general that they had left with “significant concerns” after detainees said they were being verbally abused and subject to sleep deprivation. The committee has also called for an emergency investigation into the facility following the whistle-blower complaint.