Updated at 10:40 a.m. ET
Top congressional Democrats are calling for a federal investigation after a nurse who worked at an immigration detention center in Georgia filed a whistleblower complaint alleging a lack of medical care and unsafe work practices that facilitated the spread of COVID-19.
She also says that immigrant women received questionable hysterectomies, an allegation that lawmakers seized on in statements issued Tuesday.
The group of legislators calling on the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general to investigate the claims includes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joaquin Castro and Sens. Cory Booker and Richard Blumenthal.
"If true, the appalling conditions described in the whistleblower complaint – including allegations of mass hysterectomies being performed on vulnerable immigrant women – are a staggering abuse of human rights," said Pelosi. "This profoundly disturbing situation recalls some of the darkest moments of our nation's history, from the exploitation of Henrietta Lacks, to the horror of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, to the forced sterilizations of Black women that Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others underwent and fought."
On Tuesday, a group of 168 members of Congress sent a letter urging DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari to investigate the allegations of mass hysterectomies. They're demanding an urgent response and a briefing on the status of the investigation by Sept. 25.
At the center of the claims lies the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Ga., which houses immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and is run by LaSalle Corrections, a private company that operates similar facilities in three Southern states.
Dawn Wooten, a nurse who worked at the facility until her sudden demotion in July, filed a whistleblower complaint on Monday outlining what her lawyers called "recent accounts of jarring medical neglect at ICDC."
Wooten is represented by the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection organization, and Project South, a social justice advocacy group. A coalition of human rights groups incorporated her declaration into a broader 27-page complaint filed with the DHS Office of Inspector General on Monday on behalf of Wooten and immigrants detained at the facility.
"For years, advocates in Georgia have raised red flags about the human rights violations occurring inside the Irwin County Detention Center," said Priyanka Bhatt, a staff attorney at Project South, in a statement. "Ms. Wooten's whistleblowing disclosures confirm what detained immigrants have been reporting for years: gross disregard for health and safety standards, lack of medical care, and unsanitary living conditions at Irwin."
Wooten, a licensed practical nurse, said she faced "retaliatory reprimand and demotion" in July after she missed work while awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test.
She was demoted from full time to "as needed" and said she believes this is because she had been "asking hard questions about testing detained immigrants for COVID-19 and warning officers when detained immigrants they are in contact with have tested positive."
Whistleblower allegations and ICE response
Accusations in Monday's complaint include: refusing to test detainees for COVID-19, shredding medical requests submitted by detained immigrants, fabricating medical records, allowing employees to work while symptomatic and awaiting COVID-19 test results, withholding information from detainees and employees about who has tested positive, underreporting COVID-19 cases, and allowing the transfer of detained immigrants, including those who have tested positive for the virus.
The lawyers requested a prompt investigation into the practices at ICDC and other LaSalle-run facilities.
Lawyers wrote that their complaint comes several months after another ICE detention facility, Richwood Correctional Center in Louisiana, was alleged to have used similarly unsafe tactics that put detainees and employees at risk for COVID-19. That facility is also operated by LaSalle, and a company official denied those allegations while testifying at a congressional hearing in July.
LaSalle Corrections did not respond to NPR's request for comment on Tuesday.
In a statement, ICE told NPR it "vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures." It said it does not comment prematurely on the allegations out of respect for the process of matters pending before the inspector general.
ICE previously told the Associated Press that while it takes all allegations seriously, "in general, anonymous, unproven allegations, made without any fact-checkable specifics, should be treated with the appropriate skepticism they deserve."
The complaint also raises red flags about the rate at which hysterectomies — the surgical removal of the uterus — are performed on immigrant women detained at the facility.
The complaint says that several immigrant women expressed concerns to Project South about a high rate of hysterectomies and that Wooten and other nurses at the facility questioned the number of women undergoing the procedure as well as their ability to fully understand and consent to it.
According to the complaint, a detained immigrant told Project South that she talked to five women at the facility who received hysterectomies between October and December 2019 and said they "reacted confused when explaining why they had one done."
"When I met all these women who had had surgeries, I thought this was like an experimental concentration camp," the woman told Project South. "It was like they're experimenting with our bodies."
Wooten said in the complaint that one particular gynecologist, whom she called "the uterus collector," performs the procedure. "Everybody he sees, he's taking all their uteruses out or he's taken their tubes out."
A top medical official with ICE disputed the claims, saying in a statement that agency data shows only two women had been referred for hysterectomies from the facility since 2018.
Dr. Ada Rivera, medical director of the ICE Health Service Corps, said that medical care decisions concerning detainees are made by medical personnel, not law enforcement, and that a medical procedure like a hysterectomy would "never be performed against a detainee's will."
Rivera also said that ICE would fully cooperate with any investigation by the DHS Office of Inspector General.
Mounting calls for action
In addition to Democratic lawmakers, immigration advocacy organizations and reproductive health specialists responded to the complaint's release with calls for the inspector general to investigate its claims.
The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning nonpartisan policy institute, noted that the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately harms Black and Latinx communities in the U.S. and said immigration detention facilities are "incapable" of protecting the health of people in custody.
Jamille Fields Allsbrook, director of women's health and rights at the center, called on policymakers to take steps like passing the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act to "mitigate the damage caused by the pandemic" and rebuild trust with communities that have historically faced medical abuse in the U.S.
"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," she said in a statement. "These racist, eugenicist practices are often sanctioned by U.S. law, which to this day allows for the sterilization of anyone deemed 'unfit.' "
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which represents more than 60,000 women's health care physicians, also wrote a letter to the inspector general calling the complaint's concerns "alarming" and urging him to investigate them promptly.
It also attached the group's clinical guidance regarding forced sterilization, informed consent and health literacy.
"Specific to incarcerated individuals, ACOG's guidance makes clear that 'only rarely should incarcerated women undergo sterilization, and only after access to [long-acting reversible contraception] methods has been made available and excellent documentation of prior (preincarceration) request for sterilization is available,' " the letter reads.
In a joint statement, the American Immigration Lawyers Association and American Immigration Council called on Congress to investigate conditions and medical care at ICE facilities.
The organizations said they have documented "egregious medical negligence within ICE facilities in recent years," including the detention of pregnant women and infants younger than 1 year old.
"In May, we filed a civil rights complaint documenting numerous unsanitary and unsafe conditions in 11 ICE facilities as well as gross failures to protect individuals in custody during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Benjamin Johnson, executive director at AILA. "If, after a full investigation, the allegations prove to be true, all measures must be taken to seek justice for the victims and hold DHS leadership fully accountable."
As of Monday, ICE reported a total of 43 coronavirus cases at ICDC since testing began in February, with 11 confirmed cases currently under isolation or monitoring.