Incarceration, including in ICE prisons, exacerbates the systemic anti-Black racism and discrimination inherent in the United States health care system. Medical racism results in the disparate treatment and medical neglect of Black people. At the Karnes family immigration prison in Karnes City, Texas – where RAICES offers free legal services to detained families – Black families have reported horrid access to crucial maternal and infant health care.

That’s why RAICES lawyers, with partners Cameroon American Council, Haitian Bridge Alliance, and UndocuBlack Network, filed a complaint to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Office of Inspector General. We’ve demanded an investigation into the inadequate medical care for Black pregnant women and infants at Karnes and other immigration prisons.

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ICE detained primarily Black families at Karnes in 2020

Beginning in 2020, the population at the Karnes family prison shifted to primarily Haitian families and families from multiple countries in the African continent including Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. In 2020, 43% of detained families, or 220 families RAICES provided services to at Karnes, were from Haiti, 25 families from Angola, 22 from the DRC, 6 from Ghana, 4 from Congo, 2 from Cameroon, 2 from Sierra Leone, 1 from Benin, 1 from Burkina Faso, and 1 from Nigeria. Overall, 56% of families, or 284 families, were from majority Black countries.

With this demographic shift, RAICES observed that ICE abandoned its previous policy against detaining pregnant women and infants under 1 year of age. This meant multiple pregnant women and babies experienced incarceration at Karnes during the COVID-19 pandemic while there were confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the facility. Our clients also raised serious concerns about the lack of medical care, including the absence of prenatal and postpartum care.


“...a concerning pattern of indifferent treatment…”

The specific cases within our complaint are supported by declarations from women who experienced detention and medical neglect at Karnes, and a declaration from Dr. LaTasha Nelson, a board-certified Obstetrician Gynecologist with a board-certified sub-specialty in Maternal Fetal Medicine. Dr. Nelson identified, “a concerning pattern of indifferent treatment…as well as multiple accounts of poor living conditions and substandard medical care.”

The complaint outlines seven specific examples out of the countless experiences that demonstrate these patterns. It also makes specific requests for investigation, plus an adherence to the policies favoring release and the administration of adequate and legally required medical care:

  • A 2-month pregnant mother with rheumatism was found unresponsive in her room
  • A mother suffered a miscarriage in DHS custody and was never provided adequate follow-up medical care at Karnes
  • A 1-year-old child diagnosed with neonatal asphyxia was never seen by a specialist or provided needed medical care, and ICE deported her to Haiti, a country she’d never been to; medical staff at Karnes dismissed her mother’s concerns and threatened to deny the mother access to her child
  • A 6-month pregnant mother who reported abdominal pain, vertigo, back pain, and difficulty eating was threatened for voicing her medical needs
  • A 2-month pregnant woman with a history of eclampsia was denied information about her hospital stay until her release from detention
  • A 2-month pregnant mother was so ill that her 5-year-old son sought medical care on her behalf
  • A 3-month pregnant woman could not eat, or sleep well at Karnes in part because the lights remained on throughout the night

Black women have been speaking up about this

The pattern of medical racism in DHS custody doesn’t stop at Karnes – reports erupted last year documenting the abuses at the Irwin detention center, and February marked the anniversary of the protests by Cameroonian women in ICE detention. These problems won’t stop until all immigrant detention stops. That’s why we’re asking you to join us in demanding that the Biden administration takes action immediately.

A note about Black immigrants beyond Africa and the Caribbean

As noted in our complaint, data tracked by country of origin does not fully capture racial identity, and we do not doubt that the numbers and examples here do not represent a complete account of the anti-Black racism experienced by families at Karnes.

Unfortunately ICE only tracks deportations by country of origin, not by race or ethnicity. This means researchers often only include people from majority Black countries in their definition of “Black immigrants”. We hope future data is able to distinguish Black immigrants from all countries.

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