In 2019, Pauline Binam began having irregular periods and spotting while being held at an immigration detention facility in Georgia. She was 29 at the time and had spent the past two years in federal custody, awaiting deportation to Cameroon, a country she left at the age of 2. Worried, she went to a gynecologist, who said he would treat a cyst on her ovaries by removing tissue from her uterus, a fairly standard procedure known as dilation and curettage. But when she woke up from anesthesia, the doctor told her he had removed one of her Fallopian tubes due to a clog and that she was now likely infertile, according to Binam’s immigration lawyer.
Binam began to sob. As a young mother who wanted to get married and possibly have more kids, Binam never would have consented to an operation that might have left her sterile.
Her lawyer, Vân Huynh, said being detained had already torn the mother from her 11-year-old daughter and that the operation “robbed her of so many more future opportunities.” She hasn’t had her period since.
“I almost don’t have words for just how painful this was for her,” said Huynh. “She broke down, and I think she still has breakdowns now and then thinking about what happened.”
“I felt bad and powerless,” said Binam’s mother, Jeannette, choking back tears. “We are immigrants. We don’t have a voice or money to sue.” She said the doctor treated her daughter’s body like an animal that could be cut up without consent.
Binam’s story fits a pattern of abuse outlined in a complaint filed Monday by a whistle-blower who claims that women at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC) in Georgia were being coerced into unwanted hysterectomies. By Wednesday night, ICE had put Binam on a plane back to Cameroon — though she was removed, thanks to pressure from Congress members, and sent back to an immigration detention center in Texas.
The whistle-blower, a nurse named Dawn Wooten, called the doctor who performed the procedures a “uterus collector.” “He’s taking everybody’s stuff out,” she said, according to a complaint to the inspector general’s office and the Department of Homeland Security by the nonprofit Project South. (The doctor was not initially named, but media outlets later identified him as Dr. Mahendra Amin.) Wooten says he did not explain to the women why they needed hysterectomies or even speak to them in their native language; one immigrant described the situation as like “an experimental concentration camp. It was like they’re experimenting on our bodies.”
While the complaint was largely based on secondhand stories, since its release, Representative Pramila Jayapal has spoken with lawyers for at least 17 detained immigrants who said they were forced to have hysterectomies or gynecological procedures. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and more than 170 members of Congress have demanded an investigation into the issue.
ICE did not respond to the Cut’s request for comment, and Dr. Amin’s lawyer said he vehemently denied the allegations and “is a highly respected physician who has dedicated his adult life to treating a high-risk, underserved population in rural Georgia.”
Binam is undocumented and was detained after being arrested for shoplifting in 2017, even though the charge was dismissed. She hasn’t seen her daughter since. Binam would have been eligible for legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA), had she not paid a fine for a shoplifting charge when she was 17 without understanding the consequences. A few years later she took a plea deal in a misdemeanor case, which prompted ICE to launch deportation proceedings, according to her lawyer.
Her allegations highlight the notoriously subpar medical care in ICE detention facilities, particularly when it comes to women’s health. Immigrants do not have access to potentially life-saving care to treat brain tumors, cancer, and breast cysts, and complaints about health violations are often ignored. Their basic reproductive rights are regularly violated: The Trump administration has put pregnant women in unsanitary, overcrowded holding cells, denied them medical treatment while they are in labor, and sent them to crime-ridden areas in Mexico days after their babies are born. And the government has tracked migrant girls’ periods to dissuade them from getting abortions.
The trauma of forced operations can be long-lasting. Binam’s surgery still haunts her, and she’s gone through phases of blaming herself, according to Huynh, the immigration lawyer. When she heard about the whistle-blower complaint, Binam immediately wanted to make her story public. Now, Huynh hopes ICE will keep her in the country long enough so that she can testify at any congressional hearings on the issue.
“We need her to testify,” Representative Jayapal told the New York Times. “This story sends a chill through any woman.”
Her mother hopes ICE will release Binam from detention in time for her own daughter’s 12th birthday on September 30.
“She already missed three birthdays,” Jeannette said. “That’s too much for a child to be without her mother.”
This article has been updated.