Pauline Binam has been in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody since October 2017 and was nearly deported early Wednesday morning.
The 30-year-old is one of a growing number of migrant women speaking out about unwanted hysterectomies and other gynecological procedures they said they received while detained at the Irwin County Detention Center, a privately-operated detention facility in Ocilla.
Now, lawyers and some lawmakers say Binam was close to being sent back to Cameroon — a country she left at the age of 2 — to keep her from sharing her story.
A complaint filed Monday with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security sparked an outcry after alleging mass hysterectomies taking place on some immigrant women detained at the Irwin County center without their informed consent.
Dawn Wooten, a licensed practical nurse formerly employed at the facility, has since spoken out as a whistleblower.
The 27-page complaint also alleges unsanitary living conditions and failures to test detainees for COVID-19.
This was not the first time the facility has been flagged for federal review; in 2019, a congressional committee requested an inspector general look into living conditions at three Georgia detention facilities, including the one in Irwin County.
The doctor in question of conducting the unwarranted gynecological procedures was not named in the complaint but has been identified as Dr. Mahendra Amin, a well-known gynecologist in the rural town of Douglas. CNHI independently confirmed Amin’s involvement in the situation through his lawyer, who “vehemently” denies the allegations.
In August 2019, while detained at the Irwin County facility, Binam saw Amin for a consultation after experiencing irregularities with her menstrual cycle and was told she needed to have a D&C (dilation and curettage) procedure, according to one of her attorneys, Van Huynh.
When she awoke from the procedure, Huynh said, Binam was informed that one of her fallopian tubes had been removed. The doctor then told her she would no longer be able to give birth to a child naturally.
“At 29 years old, Pauline had been robbed of a future as a result of being in an immigration center," Huynh said.
Nicole Binam, Binam's older sister, said her sister has missed birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and the births of new family members.
“To now hear she has been defiled," she said, "makes things even worse.”
Binam's family is pleading for ICE to release her before Sept. 30, her daughter's 12th birthday, so she doesn't miss another important moment.
On Wednesday, some lawmakers said they intervened after ICE suddenly attempted to deport Binam to Cameroon. More than 170 members of the U.S. House of Representatives demanded Binam and other women alleging mistreatment and set to be deported be returned to the detention center so they can participate in investigations. ICE has since confirmed Binam is still in the country.
Binam's lawyers allege the sudden attempt at deportation was to prevent her from speaking out about her experiences at the Irwin County Detention Center. ICE denied claims Binam's deportation was linked to her speaking out about the unwanted medical procedure she received there.
In a statement, ICE said her deportation scheduled for Wednesday had been set in July, however, Ethiopian Airlines “did not allow her to board the flight" and that it could not speak to why Binam was not allowed on the flight.
U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, who was a part of the effort to stop Binam’s deportation, released a statement saying that after being briefed by lawyers, she learned of at least 17 women who say they underwent forced, unnecessary and unsafe gynecological procedures at the Irwin County center.
Jayapal called the conversations with the women’s attorneys “stunning” and referred to “abhorrent human rights violations."
“I am horrified and outraged to hear these stories, which contain many consistencies and raise serious questions about not only this particular doctor but about the entire detention system — largely for-profit — that is complicit in the abuses of rights and has long run roughshod over and ignored (and) neglected the health, well-being and human rights of immigrants,” she said.
Tony H. Pham, the senior official performing the duties of the director of ICE, said in a statement that the allegations "raise some very serious concerns that deserve to be investigated quickly and thoroughly."
"ICE welcomes the efforts of both the Office of Inspector General as well as the Department of Homeland Security’s parallel review," he said. "As a former prosecutor, individuals found to have violated our policies and procedures should be held accountable. If there is any truth to these allegations, it is my commitment to make the corrections necessary to ensure we continue to prioritize the health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees.”
The Rev. Leeann Culbreath, co-founding chair of the South Georgia Immigrant Support Network in Tifton, is a friend of Binam and said she has been sharing her story after they met through a referral to the group in 2018.
“She's become like family — like a little sister — and just someone I love dearly and have watched so much injustice happen in her case, in her life,” Culbreath said.
Since Monday, when the whistleblower complaint surfaced, Culbreath said she has been "stunned" with the response.
“For years, we’ve been screaming at a brick wall, and all of the sudden the world is paying attention," she said. "That’s what we always hoped for."
Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites.