The top congressional Democrat, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has joined mounting calls for an investigation into an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) detention centre in Georgia accused of performing hysterectomies on migrant women held there without their full consent.
Pelosi branded the substance of allegations presented by a whistleblowing nurse “a staggering abuse of human rights”.
The nurse, Dawn Wooten, who worked at Irwin county detention centre for three years, made a whistleblower complaint, filed on her behalf on Monday in which she accused the centre of negligence, poor safety precautions, including around the spread of coronavirus.
She cited dangerous and unsanitary conditions and an alarmingly high rate of hysterectomies performed on Spanish-speaking women whom she said she and other nurses feared did not understand what procedure they were undergoing.
“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,” Pelosi said in a statement.
“The DHS [Department of Homeland Security] inspector general must immediately investigate the allegations detailed in this complaint.”
It comes as more than 160 Democrats signed a letter addressed to the DHS inspector general, Joseph Cuffari, demanding an “immediate investigation”.
The letter, dated Tuesday, said: “These reports hearken back to a dark time in US history in which 32 states passed eugenic-sterilization laws, resulting in the sterilization of between 60 and 70 thousand people in the early 1900s.”
It adds: “The reports of mass hysterectomies cause grave concern for the violation of the bodily autonomy and reproductive rights of detained people. Everyone, regardless of their immigration status, their language, or their incarceration deserves to control their own reproductive choices, and make informed choices about their bodies.”
The letter requests a response and a briefing on the status of the investigation by 25 September.
Ice, which comes under the umbrella of the DHS, said on Tuesday it would cooperate with an investigation but denied claims of extensive hysterectomies, claiming it has performed only two on detainees at the centre since 2018.
Ada Rivera, medical director of the Ice Health Service Corps, said in a statement: “The accusations will be fully investigated by an independent office, however, Ice vehemently disputes the implication that detainees are used for experimental medical procedures.”
She added: “To be clear, medical care decisions concerning detainees are made by medical personnel, not by law enforcement personnel. Detainees are afforded informed consent, and a medical procedure like a hysterectomy would never be performed against a detainee’s will.”
However, the complaint alleged “jarring medical neglect” and “high rates of hysterectomies done to immigrant women”.
The whistleblower claimed there were issues over “proper informed consent” for some of the hysterectomies. The centre is also accused of refusing to test detained immigrants who had either been exposed to coronavirus or had symptoms.
Wooten said in the complaint: “These immigrant women, I don’t think they really, totally, all the way understand this is what’s going to happen, depending on who explains it to them.”
The claims against the centre have prompted widespread political outrage, chiefly among senior Democrats.
Joaquín Castro, Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairman, praised Wooten’s “courageous choice to speak up” and said “these horrors must not remain hidden” as he called for an immediate investigation.
He added: “The American people need to know exactly why and under what conditions that vulnerable women in Ice custody underwent hysterectomies.
“Were Trump administration officials aware of any coerced procedures, and if so, what actions did they take, if any, to stop this abuse? Congress is already examining this disturbing complaint, and the DHS inspector general must immediately investigate these serious allegations by conducting thorough on-the-ground inspections and not relying on statements from Ice agents and private contractors.”
Senator Cory Booker sent a letter to the DHS Office of Inspector General urging them to “immediately conduct a thorough in-person investigation” into the centre and other detention centres across the US.
He wrote: “This whistleblower complaint is stunning and, if true, paints a disturbing picture at the Irwin County Detention Center … Given the serious nature of the complaint, I urge your office to immediately conduct a thorough in-person investigation of the Irwin County Detention Center.”
Senator Richard Blumenthal also joined the calls for an investigation, branding the allegations “depraved and cruel”.
He said: “The misconduct described here echoes forced sterilization campaigns of the past conducted by some of history’s worst villains. We as a nation are better than this return to long-rejected violations of human rights.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: “It’s astounding that after a massive family separation operation, mass sexual assault of detainees, trapping immigrants in Covid-infected detention centers, and now reports of mass hysterectomies (which the US has done before), abolishing Ice is controversial. Where’s the line?”
The Guardian is seeking comment from Ice, LaSalle Corrections, the Louisiana-based company that runs the Irwin centre, and the DHS but has not yet received responses.