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Illuminating a dark history of forced sterilization

In the 1920s, a growing eugenics movement in the U.S. led to 33 states adopting laws that resulted in more than 60,000 sterilizations.

The family holding area at a Border Patrol Centralized Processing Center is seen in a still image from video in McAllen, Texas.
The family holding area at a Border Patrol Centralized Processing Center is seen in a still image from video in McAllen, Texas.
Office of Inspector General/DHS/Handout via REUTERS

Just when it appeared that things could not get worse for people seeking their right to asylum in the United States, allegations of forced sterilization of women and widespread medical neglect at an ICE detention facility emerge. These allegations must be vigorously investigated, and those who are responsible must be held accountable. And, ICE must ensure these abuses stop and start providing urgent medical care to those it detains.

A “person who has been forced to … undergo involuntary sterilization … shall be deemed to have been persecuted on account of political opinion.” This excerpt from U.S. immigration law defines a person who has undergone — or fears they will be required to undergo — forced sterilization in their home country as a “refugee.” And yet, recent news indicates the same Department of Homeland Security charged with granting refugee status is committing this persecution.

Michele Garnett McKenzie
Michele Garnett McKenzie
The allegations build on a dark history of forced sterilizations in the United States. In the 1920s, a growing eugenics movement in the United States led to 33 states adopting laws that resulted in more than 60,000 sterilizations. By 1927, the Supreme Court had ruled in Buck v. Bell that involuntarily sterilizing “feeble minded” inmates with “hereditary” mental illness did not violate constitutional due process or equal protection rights. This eugenics movement served as a model for Nazi Germany. In the early 1970s, the Indian Health Services sterilized 25–42 percent of Native women of reproductive age who came in seeking health care services. Black women in the South and Latina women in the Southwest have also been the targets of sterilization campaigns. And incarcerated women have been subject to coercive sterilization into the 21st century — California only banned the practice in 2014.

Detained women particularly vulnerable

Today, forced sterilization is outlawed as a crime against humanity, war crime, and crime of genocide in international law. U.N. experts on torture have stated that detained women are particularly vulnerable to these violations. And measures that are intended to prevent births within a group are prohibited as a crime of genocide. The United States has an absolute duty to prevent and punish these human rights violations.

International law also protects women’s right to decide freely on the number and spacing of their children and protects against arbitrary interference with one’s privacy and family. These legal standards have been built in response to the lessons learned by witnessing the use of women’s bodies as a tactic of war and oppression.

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Context: Other oppressive immigration policies

This is precisely the case for women held in ICE custody. The whistleblower complaint comes in the context of other oppressive immigration policies. In 2018, for example, the ACLU successfully sued the administration for its attempts to force unwanted pregnancies amongst detained immigrant women. The administration has also proposed and implemented policies restricting asylum protections for vulnerable women. It has never ended its shocking family separation scheme. Additionally, the administration continues to detain migrants and conduct apprehension operations despite numerous condemnations about the risks of COVID-19 in facilities. These tactics reflect a general distain for the lives and humanity of people in immigration custody, and migrant women in particular.

Without decisive action — including congressional investigations and holding actors to account — we risk not only violating human rights but sliding down the path of ethnic cleansing that we have so urgently condemned. Abuse of human bodies, and particularly of women, is a bellwether for oppressive regimes. The Advocates for Human Rights calls on the administration to immediately stop its abuses and to start meeting its duty to provide appropriate medical care. We also call for investigation of and accountability for these crimes against humanity, and for all of us to demand better.

Michele Garnett McKenzie is deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights.

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