Forced Sterilizations in ICE Detention Facilities and Possible Recourse for Undocumented Victims

By Alexandra van Doren
Associate Editor,  Vol. 26

In September of 2020, many reacted with equal parts shock and disgust at the headlines that began to emerge detailing the unauthorized hysterectomies being performed in the Irwin County immigration detention facility in Georgia.[1] That shock, while understandable, is unfounded. Jamille Fields Allsbrook, the Director of Women’s Health and Rights at the Center for American Progress denoted,

“The United States has a long and sordid history of reproductive coercion and forced sterilization, particularly targeting Black, Latina, and Native American women as well as women with disabilities and incarcerated women. These racist, eugenicist practices are often sanctioned by U.S. law, which to this day allows for the sterilization of anyone deemed ‘unfit.”[2]

The history of eugenics in America embodies a shameful tradition of imposing involuntary sterilization on populations deemed unfit to reproduce, with policies targeting “people with perceived disabilities and mental health issues”[3] in addition to “the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, criminals, and people of color.”[4] In the 20th century alone, the U.S. sterilized nearly 70,000 people.[5] In numerous instances, these procedures were authorized by the U.S. Supreme Court itself.[6]

These abhorrent practices have extended into the 21st century, with Dr. Mahendra Amin being the latest perpetrator of unnecessary and unauthorized gynecological procedures on at least sixteen or seventeen women in ICE custody.[7] In many cases, Dr. Amin reported that his patients complained of heavy bleeding, clots, chronic pelvic pain, and other symptoms that would justify surgical intervention, when in fact many of the women interviewed said they reported no such symptoms.[8] One victim of these forced sterilization procedures, Yuridia, recounted to the New York Times her confusion and attempt to make sense of the medical treatment she received at the hands of Dr. Amin. She described being alone, in pain, and unable to communicate with anyone in her native language following her surgery before being deported just three days later.[9] In light of these testimonies, Dawn Wooten, a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center and whistleblower, reported to Project South that Dr. Amin is known amongst staff at the medical facility as “the uterus collector.”[10]

Dawn Wooten, left, a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, listens to a speaker at a Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020 news conference in Atlanta protesting conditions at the immigration jail. Wooten says authorities denied COVID-19 tests to immigrants, performed questionable hysterectomies and shredded records in a complaint filed to the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (AP Photo/Jeff Amy)

Dawn Wooten, left, a nurse at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, speaks at a news conference in Atlanta protesting conditions at the immigration jail, Sept. 15, 2020.

The immediate deportation of women who did not consent to these procedures is likely a tactic employed by ICE to evade culpability for what could amount to an enormous sum of damages should these women elect to file suit against Dr. Amin and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. These women, however, are in a more precarious position than perhaps many Black, Native, poor, or mentally ill patients who suffered the same injustices given that they are undocumented and in danger of being deported before they can obtain legal representation. Scott v. Sanford set the precedent that a non-citizen did not have standing to bring suit in federal court,[11] but with the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, all citizens and non-citizens are now entitled to Due Process under the Constitution.[12] Thus, the victims of these procedures that still remain in the U.S. have standing to bring such a lawsuit against Dr. Amin and the DHS as a significant liberty interest has been violated by preventing them from procreating. But what of the women who have already been deported in anticipation of the possibility of legal repercussions? The answer is not yet clear, but the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that it has asked the U.S. government “to clarify the situation” and requested additional information about the procedures conducted on Mexican citizens.[13] Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has threatened legal action against the U.S. government should the investigations confirm these allegations as true.[14] The nature of the legal action Mexico plans to pursue is yet to be determined, but will likely gain clarity and take shape once the results of the investigation are released and a more robust list of victims and their allegations are compiled.

With the impending turning of political tides in January 2021, and with President-elect Biden’s promise to issue executive orders banning certain unethical and illegal practices taking place at the border and in immigration detention camps, we can hope to see more light shed on this ongoing investigation and perhaps some attempt at recuperative justice for the victims.

[1] Caitlin Dickerson, Miriam Jordan, and Seth Freed Wessler, Immigrants Say They Were Pressured Into Unneeded Surgeries, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2020),

[2] Rachel Treisman, Whistleblower Alleges “Medical Neglect, “Questionable Hysterectomies of ICE Detainees, npr (Sept. 16, 2020, 4:43 AM),

[3] Miranda Bryant, Allegations of unwanted ICE hysterectomies recall grim time in US history, The Guardian (Sept. 21, 2020, 3:00 PM),

[4] Lisa Ko, Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States, PBS: Independent Lens, (Jan. 29, 2016),

[5] Id.

[6] Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927); see also The Supreme Court Ruling That Led To 70,000 Forced Sterilizations, npr (Mar. 7. 2016, 1:22 PM),; see also Miranda Bryant, supra note 3.

[7] Nick Miroff, Hospital where activists say ICE detainees were subjected to hysterectomies says just two were performed there (Sept. 22, 2020, 4:10 PM),

[8] Dickerson, supra note 1.

[9] Id.

[10] Miroff, supra note 7.

[11] Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857).

[12] U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.

[13] Mexico asks U.S. to “clarify” alleged hysterectomies on migrant women in ICE custody, CBS News (Sept. 29, 2020, 6:16 AM),

[14] ICE whistleblower: Mexico investigating US immigrant ‘sterilisations’,  BBC News (Sept. 23, 2020),