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How Border Patrol has kept newborns locked up with their moms

Kate Morrissey, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in News & Features

SAN DIEGO — Border Patrol has held newborn U.S. citizens in custody unnecessarily — sometimes for multiple nights — according to a government report released this month.

The Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes Border Patrol, reviewed the agency's treatment of pregnant women and births in custody after a Guatemalan woman filed a complaint last year about what happened to her at a station in Chula Vista.

The woman, who was identified as Ana by the attorneys helping her, said in the complaint that she was denied medical care when Border Patrol agents apprehended her in February 2020. She was instead taken to a station, where she soon gave birth while standing and holding onto the side of a trash can for support.

The complaint alleged that many men were present around her as she gave birth — which made Ana feel humiliated — and that an agent reached for the newborn baby without gloves on.

At the time, Border Patrol denied the woman's allegations and welcomed the investigation.

While the Inspector General report found that agents "provided adequate medical assistance to the mother and her newborn and complied with applicable policies" in Ana's case, it criticized Border Patrol for holding her and her child overnight in a holding cell after they were released from the hospital.

The report found multiple instances of mothers who gave birth in custody and then spent up to several nights in custody before being released.

"Although some of these instances may have been unavoidable, Border Patrol needs reliable practices to expedite releases as the holding of U.S. citizen newborns at Border Patrol stations poses health, safety, and legal concerns," the report says.

Monika Langarica, an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, one of the organizations representing Ana, welcomed the report's findings about holding newborns in custody and the steps the report called for that would increase transparency and accountability for the agency. But she said it did not go far enough in its review of the circumstances in her client's case.

"The report fails to account for her pleas for medical attention starting at the point of apprehension, at the point of arrest, which I think gets at this larger point that Border Patrol should never have taken her to the station to begin with," Langarica said. "She was in distress, she needed medical attention and she should've been immediately been transported to hospital."

The report says that investigators reviewed law enforcement reports, video footage and dispatch records and interviewed "numerous individuals."

It provides a general timeline that indicates Ana was apprehended around 2:30 p.m. and that agents brought her and her family to the station around 3 p.m. She began delivering her baby at 3:09 p.m., according to the timeline. The birth took about eight minutes. Emergency medical staff arrived about two minutes after Ana finished giving birth.


"The investigation did not substantiate the allegation that Border Patrol and unnamed Border Patrol agents assigned to the Chula Vista station mistreated the detainee," the report says.

The report does not specifically address any of the alleged actions that Ana said happened during the childbirth process or provide further detail on investigator's findings beyond the general timeline.

The Office of the Inspector General did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

"CBP takes its role providing care and ensuring the health, safety, security, and welfare of each adult and child in its custody very seriously," said a spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol's parent agency. "That the OIG did not find deficiencies in Border Patrol's provision of access to medical assistance to the mother and her newborn, or non-compliance with applicable policies, is a testament to that."

After Ana gave birth, she was taken to a hospital for two days and then returned to the Border Patrol station, where she spent the night with her newborn in a cell. Photos in the OIG report show Ana sleeping on a bench with her baby, the child wrapped in a metallic blanket.

"The photographs are really upsetting," Langarica said. "When we talk about welcoming people with dignity, with humanity, in a way that comports with their rights, this is not it."

Ana and her daughter were released the following afternoon with instructions to appear in immigration court.

Investigators found other instances of post partum mothers and their newborn babies spending one or several nights in holding cells. They were not able to identify every instance in which this happened, according to the report, because Border Patrol does not have a way to track childbirths in custody.

The report calls for Border Patrol to develop a standardized way to track in-custody births and to work to release mothers and their newborn children more quickly.

Ana's complaint called for pregnant women apprehended at the border to be immediately taken to a hospital for evaluation, rather than a Border Patrol station.

"There is more work to be done to ensure pregnant people and their families are treated with dignity and compassion as they seek their legal right to asylum in the U.S.," said Kate Clark, an attorney with Jewish Family Service, another organization involved in Ana's complaint. "No one should be forced to give birth in custody or immediately returned to a carceral setting with a newborn baby."

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