"We give a pregnancy test at DHS to every girl over 10, to provide for their medical care. That is how dangerous the journey is," she said. Women and girls who cross the border into the US with the help of smugglers are at a high risk of sexual assault, and according to Nielsen this is one of the ways the agency tries to protect them.
This prompted an outcry among advocates, who criticised the administration, which is already behind human rights abuses such as its family separation policy, for forcing minors to undergo the procedure. Given Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) well-recorded history of abuses — a recent report uncovered over 1,200 sexual abuse complaints from people detained by ICE, with half of the alleged perpetrators ICE officers — this did not sit well with many. (ICE and CBP are both arms of DHS.)
DHS says it only administers pregnancy tests to minors with their parents' consent. "[DHS] performs pregnancy screenings on female individuals in custody generally beginning at age 10 through age 56," an official who did not provide their name told Refinery29. "Parental consent is required to conduct a pregnancy screening on a minor." The official added that this is a "long-standing policy."
"I'm pretty surprised that DHS does that," Rochelle Garza, an attorney in Texas who works with immigrant minors, told Refinery29. She explained that for the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), it's standard practice. Minors detained by CBP are typically transferred to the custody of ORR, and the office handles the custody of unaccompanied minors.
"I think she was trying to show compassion," Garza said of Nielsen. "But what happens if they are pregnant? What do you do afterward?"
Shaunna Thomas, executive director of UltraViolet, a women's advocacy organisation, echoed Garza's concerns.
"How are these tests being administered?" she said in a statement provided to Refinery29. "Are these girls being provided access to counselling for potential histories of sexual abuse? Are they being offered access to medical treatment or abortions if they do not want to carry a child? What does the administration plan to do with the results of this information? Will the girls' pregnancy results influence the government's decision to deport or grant them asylum?"
Pregnancy tests are just the tip of the iceberg. In December 2017, the Trump administration issued a new ICE policy that allows pregnant women to be detained before their third trimester; it was officially announced in March. Before that, pregnant women were only detained under "extraordinary circumstances" or in cases of expedited deportation.
Since then, there have been reports of pregnant women who miscarried in ICE detention and didn't get proper care, and others saying they have been denied medical care, shackled, and abused. Earlier this month, Democrats introduced legislation to prevent ICE from detaining and shackling expecting mothers.