It is hard to choose the worst story of the Trump era, but a whistleblower complaint filed on Monday with the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general is surely among them. The complaint, which was brought by a coalition of legal advocacy and human rights groups in the South, focuses on alleged medical misconduct at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, which houses people detained for immigration violations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It describes a litany of health and safety failures at the facility, including insufficient Covid-19 precautions, substandard testing and care, intentional destruction and falsification of medical records, and more.
The most searing allegations of misconduct came from former nurse Dawn Wooten, who claims that multiple detained women were taken to a gynecologist who performed hysterectomies on them without their informed consent. “I’ve had several inmates tell me that they’ve been to see the doctor and they’ve had hysterectomies and they don’t know why they went or why they’re going,” she recounted in the complaint. There is a tragic history in the United States of forced sterilizations, which rank among the gravest possible violations of a person’s bodily integrity and dignity. These matters cry out for the attention of lawmakers, but a key lesson of the Trump era is that they may need to take action to redouble their own oversight powers.
Reactions on Capitol Hill have been understandably intense since the story broke. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders described the reports as “simply horrifying” and said they “must be investigated by Congress and anyone responsible must be held accountable for these disturbing acts.” Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley also demanded congressional investigations into what she described as “horrendous human rights abuses” at the Georgia facility. “The fact of the matter is the United States has engaged in a program of mass human rights violations targeting immigrants,” New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Twitter. “Our country must atone for it all.”
One of the strongest statements, at least at first, came from Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “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,” she said. “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.”
But things went awry when the top Democratic politician in America began talking about next steps. Though the House of Representatives has both the power and the responsibility to conduct oversight, Pelosi fell short of promising or even threatening to invoke that power. “The DHS Inspector General must immediately investigate the allegations detailed in this complaint,” Pelosi said. “Congress and the American people need to know why and under what conditions so many women, reportedly without their informed consent, were pushed to undergo this extremely invasive and life-altering procedure.”