For ICE detainee, minor gynecological surgery led to unwanted sterilization

Pauline Binam, right, shown with her sister, thought she was having a minor gynecological procedure, lawyers and advocates say. When she awoke, a doctor had removed a fallopian tube, leaving her sterile. CONTRIBUTED

Pauline Binam had been in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody for two years when she began having irregular periods and vaginal bleeding. But when she awoke from anesthesia after what she thought would be a minor gynecological procedure, a doctor said he had instead removed one of her fallopian tubes.

She would be never again be able to conceive a child. She was 29 years old.

Binam is one of at least 17 ICE detainees who say the same doctor performed hysterectomies or operated on other reproductive organs without their consent while they were held at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, about 200 miles south of Atlanta.

The Department of Homeland Security has opened two investigations into the allegations, and members of Congress plan a fact-finding visit to the privately run facility next week.

“We will work to end and solve this inhumane treatment,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said Friday in a conference call with reporters.

In a statement, ICE’s interim director, Tony Pham, said anyone who violated the agency’s policies should be held accountable. “If there is any truth to these allegations,” Pham said, “it is my commitment to make the corrections necessary to ensure we continue to prioritize the health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees."

Lawyers for detainees have told Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, that they know of at least 17 detainees who had what they described as forced gynecological procedures.

“If this is happening to them,” Jayapal wrote on Twitter, “what about women without lawyers?”

The surgeries on women at the Irwin County facility — first brought to light in a whistleblower complaint this week — reflects larger concerns about treatment of ICE detainees across the nation, lawyers and other advocates for undocumented immigrants said.

“This is about the broader system — about a lack of transparency and a lack of accountability,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and policy director of Project South, an Atlanta-based organization that filed the whistleblower complaint for a nurse who worked at the Irwin County facility. Women detainees, she said, have “no control over their bodies and no say over what is done to their bodies.“

The Irwin County complaint centers on Dr. Mahendra Amin, a gynecologist who practices in Ocilla and in nearby Douglas. He treated detainees under a contract with LaSalle Corrections, which owns the detention center.

Amin has denied performing procedures without patients' consent. On Friday, his lawyer declined to comment.

Binam is a native of Cameroon who has lived in the United States since she was 2. ICE took her into custody in 2017 in Baltimore, where her mother, her sister and her daughter, now 11, still live. Immigration advocates declined to discuss the circumstances of her arrest, and court papers in her appeal of a deportation order are sealed.

In August 2019, when Binam was taken to see Amin at Irwin County Hospital, she expected to undergo a dilation and curettage procedure, or D&C, to remove a cyst, she has told lawyers, friends and relatives.

Only when she awoke, she has said, she learned Amin had removed a fallopian tube. Amin told her she might be able to conceive a child only through artificial insemination.

Back at the detention center, she called her sister, Nicole. “How can somebody do that without consent?” she asked, Nicole Binam recalled Friday, saying her sister felt “defiled.”

“We both just stayed on the phone and cried, because there was nothing we could do.”

It is not clear whether Pauline Binam filed a formal complaint about the procedure or whether she had the opportunity to do so.

But on the way back to the detention center, she told the driver what happened, and later discussed it with a mental health professional, said the Rev. Leanne Culbreath, an Episcopal priest who befriended Binam and spoke to her frequently.

A lawyer involved in Binam’s immigration case released a page from her medical records that documented her visit with the mental health professional on Aug. 28, 2019, five days after the surgery.

“She is ‘bothered’ by the fact that she went into surgery expecting a D&C and ended up having a salpingectomy," or removal of a fallopian tube, the mental health counselor wrote. Binam also complained that the detention center did not provide supplies to change her dressing or give her more of the painkillers she received at the hospital.

Binam’s challenge to her deportation order is awaiting a decision from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Nevertheless, ICE transferred her to a detention center in Texas and this week, shortly after the whistleblower complaint was filed, the agency prepared to deport her to Cameroon.

The deportation was intended “to make sure she cannot speak about medical abuse,” her lawyer, Van Huynh, alleged.

When Reps. Jackson Lee and Jayapal intervened on Binam’s behalf early Wednesday, she already was on a commercial airliner, waiting for departure. ICE agents removed her moments before the plane’s doors closed, then took her back to detention.

“America is her home,” Binam’s sister said Friday. “She grew up here. She went to school here. She had her daughter here. Her family is here.”

Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this article.

The story so far

A nurse who worked at the Irwin County Detention Center, a privately owned jail for undocumented immigrants in South Georgia, filed a whistleblower complaint, alleging the facility did not provide appropriate treatment for COVID-19 symptoms and that women had undergone gynecological procedures, including hysterectomies, without their consent. Investigations have been launched by Congress and by the Department of Homeland Security.

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