Alma Bowman, a 54-year-old woman in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, was scheduled for deportation on Monday. For over two years, Bowman has been held at Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center, the site of growing concern about medical neglect and coerced gynecological procedures performed on nearly 60 women. She has been a key witness, for attorneys and journalists, of a doctor performing the allegedly unnecessary or overly aggressive procedures.
She is also a U.S. citizen, according to her lawyer and documentation reviewed by The Intercept.
“I’m just scared,” Bowman told The Intercept about her potential deportation. “I always had this fear that I’ll lose touch with my family.”
Though she was ordered removed from the country on June 4, ICE only took action to begin her deportation in the last few weeks — after the public became aware of allegations of medical misconduct at Irwin. Following the initiation of deportation proceedings against her, a lawyer finally began reviewing documents for Bowman’s immigration case and realized that she had documentation indicating her U.S. citizenship.
On Monday morning, ICE denied a stay of removal for Bowman, potentially setting up her deportation. On Monday afternoon, Bowman’s deportation was halted, for now, and she was to be returned from Arizona, where she was being prepared for her departure, to a detention center in Georgia, her advocates told The Intercept.
“I am gratified that the deportation of Alma Bowman has been stayed for now. A 43-year resident of this country with compelling evidence that she is a United States citizen, Ms. Bowman is a material witness in ongoing Congressional and DHS investigations into human rights violations at the ICE Irwin County Detention Center,” Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., told The Intercept in a statement, referring to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General investigation into Irwin. “To deport her before she has been interviewed would have been a gross obstruction of justice.”
Born in 1966 in the Philippines, to a U.S. citizen father who was serving in the Navy and a Filipina mother, Bowman moved to the U.S. with her parents as an adolescent. “I always thought that I was a citizen of the United States,” Bowman said. She has two U.S. citizen children and is married to a U.S. citizen, whom she is separated from.
“ICE had enough information that they could’ve looked into the matter and raised the possibility of her status as a U.S. citizen in court. But that was never done.”
Bowman said she told both an ICE officer and more than one immigration judge — four separate judges have presided over her case in the past three years — about her citizenship. The immigration officials seemed indifferent. “They were not paying attention,” Bowman said, when asked how the officials reacted to her claims of citizenship. “They didn’t believe me, and I got it in my head that maybe I wasn’t.” One ICE officer, she told The Intercept, questioned whether the man who raised her as his daughter was actually her biological father. Her birth certificate, which The Intercept was able to review, names her father, a U.S. citizen. Her maternal grandfather was also a U.S. citizen.
Without an attorney, Bowman represented herself in immigration court until this week. In the course of her complex legal and immigration cases, she asked for asylum and, after it was denied, languished in immigration detention. After nearly half a year in Atlanta City Detention Center, she was transferred to Irwin and held there from January 2018 until last week — more than 30 months — when she was transferred to Arizona in preparation for her deportation. After attorneys with the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, or GLAHR, began representing her last week, they discovered that Bowman is, in fact, a U.S. citizen. The Intercept was able to review her records, including birth certificates, marriage contracts, and immigration forms related to her citizenship.
Prior to 1986, laws regarding citizenship status were governed by the 1952 version of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which stated that to acquire citizenship for a person born out of wedlock to a U.S. citizen father, they must have been legitimated by their father prior to turning 21 years old.
As Bowman’s parents prepared to bring her to the U.S. in 1977, when Bowman was 11 years old, her father filled out an immigration form called a “petition to classify status of alien relative,” which The Intercept reviewed. The form, which owing to its age is difficult to read, was submitted to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the now-defunct U.S. immigration agency, at the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines. Van Huynh, Bowman’s lawyer from GLAHR, argues that the document legitimates her paternity under federal law.
Under Georgia state law, her parents’ marriage in 1968 also legitimated her, Huynh said. (The Intercept reviewed the marriage certificate.) Moreover, under Philippine law, marriage after birth results in the legitimation of a child.
All of this, Huynh argues, makes it clear that Bowman is a U.S. citizen. “For 43 years, immigration officials had access to her birth certificate, listing her father as a U.S. citizen, and her parents’ marriage certificate, since the documents were submitted when her father filed a petition for her to immigrate to the United States,” Huynh said. “ICE had enough information that they could’ve looked into the matter and raised the possibility of her status as a U.S. citizen in court. But that was never done.” Huynh added that there’s “no doubt on my part about her U.S. citizenship.”
Bowman grew up in Georgia and speaks with the state’s characteristic lilting drawl. She identifies deeply with the state where she raised her two children, both of whom graduated from the same high school she did. She was actively involved in her children’s school and enjoys gardening, reading, and doing arts and crafts.
Bowman has high blood pressure, hyperthyroidism, and sleep apnea, and was diagnosed with diabetes while in detention. Among other fears, she’s worried about accessing the proper treatments and medicine if she’s returned to the Philippines.
Deportations of U.S. citizens occur much more frequently than commonly understood. According to Jacqueline Stevens, a professor at Northwestern University and founder of the Deportation Research Clinic, about 1 percent of all people detained by ICE are U.S. citizens, and about one-half of 1 percent of all people deported from the country are U.S. citizens. That means thousands, or even tens of thousands, of U.S. citizens are deported annually.
One of the immigration judges who presided over Bowman’s claim was William Cassidy, who previously came under scrutiny for deporting a citizen, Mark Lyttle, to Mexico in 2008. A district court judge in 2012 wrote that Cassidy had “rubber-stamped the false conclusion and unsupported record constructed by North Carolina ICE and the Georgia ICE Defendants that stated Lyttle was a citizen of Mexico.” In 2019, Attorney General William Barr appointed Cassidy to the Board of Immigration Appeals. (Immigration courts are civil courts operated by the Justice Department, not an independent branch of government.)
Stevens told The Intercept that ICE has “guidelines put in place for exactly these kinds of cases.” The guidelines state that when “there is uncertainty about whether the evidence is probative of U.S. citizenship, ICE should not detain, arrest, or lodge an immigration detainer against the individual and should cancel any immigration detainer already lodged by ICE,” according to a 2015 ICE memo published by the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
In 2017, Bowman was first taken into custody by ICE after a traffic stop; she was on parole after serving two years for minor drug possession. Since being transferred to Irwin in January 2018, Bowman has been trying to call attention to alleged medical abuses at the facility, which she said she has been both subjected to and has witnessed. She has also decried the general conditions of uncleanliness, leaking roofs, moldy bathrooms, favoritism, and rule-changing.
“These conditions are not safe for anyone to live in whether they are citizens of the United States or not,” Bowman wrote last week in a letter to Johnson, the House member from Georgia, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
Bowman was first seen by Dr. Mahendra Amin — the doctor accused of unnecessary and overly aggressive gynecological procedures — in May 2018, after complaining of vaginal pain. In an interview, as well as in her letter to Johnson and Ocasio-Cortez, Bowman claimed that Amin told her that it was “all in her imagination.” After she insisted, according to the interview and letter to Congress, he prescribed her a hormonal cream, though she never received the medication. Bowman had previously undergone a hysterectomy in 1999.
After ongoing pain and discomfort, five weeks after being seen by Amin, Bowman succeeded in getting sent to another doctor, who diagnosed her with a stage 2 or 3 rectocele, a rectal hernia pressing into her vaginal wall, and recommended aggressive treatment.
Amin’s lawyer, Scott Grubman, did not respond to a detailed request for comment on the allegations in this story. In past news reports, including at The Intercept, Grubman and Amin have denied any wrongdoing and said that any investigation would clear the doctor. Neither ICE nor the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, which is investigating the allegations of medical misconduct at Irwin, responded to requests for comment.
In the letter she sent to Congress, Bowman also claimed that Irwin sent two detainees to Amin on September 22, a week after allegations of abuse came to light.
Bowman’s transfer and planned deportation reflect worries among congressional leaders that ICE may be attempting to deport key witnesses in the investigation into misconduct by Amin. “As the investigation proceeds, deportation proceedings against detainee witnesses must be halted,” Johnson said in a statement to The Intercept last week.
Huynh described Bowman’s testimony about Amin as “critical” to efforts to raise awareness about allegations of medical misconduct at Irwin. Bowman’s experience, according to Huynh, provides evidence to back up allegations of Amin’s “wide range of medical incompetence.”
“Our government should not be deporting U.S. citizens. It should be protecting them.”
According to attorneys, advocates, and Bowman herself, she has not been interviewed by any government officials regarding Amin or other medical abuse and neglect issues in Irwin. Bowman has been in touch, however, with attorneys and advocates investigating medical abuses in Irwin since March.
Rev. Leeann Culbreath, of the South Georgia Immigrant Support Network, described Bowman as a “central figure, a key community leader within the dorm” who “knew what was going on with everybody.” Besides being well-informed of the procedures and alleged abuses taking place in Irwin, Bowman also thoroughly “documented what she was observing,” Culbreath told The Intercept, adding, “She has strong evidence about Amin, around Covid-19 and other medical neglect issues.”
Priyanka Bhatt, a staff attorney with Project South, told The Intercept that Bowman was “a big source of information” for the Office of Inspector General complaint filed on September 14 and first reported by The Intercept.
Bowman’s criticisms of medical care in Irwin are not focused only on Amin, but paint a broader picture of medical neglect and abuse. Bowman was housed with four women who had been diagnosed with the coronavirus and suspected that there were others who also had been infected but weren’t tested due to what she claimed were staff shortages.
Though Bowman had been in touch with lawyers and advocates about conditions in ICE detention, she only met with Van Huynh about her own case for the first time on October 27. It was only after reviewing her case file last week that Huynh realized Bowman was a citizen.
Her case also shows the perils of aggressive incarceration practices apart from immigration detention and deportation. According to Huynh, Bowman served one year in prison and four on parole for a forgery charge after paying for groceries using her boyfriend’s checkbook. After she was released, and while still on probation, she was picked up and charged with possession of less than an ounce of methamphetamines and sent back to prison.
Huynh is worried about what Bowman may face in the Philippines, where drug users have faced prison, assault, and extrajudicial murder in a severe crackdown led by President Rodrigo Duterte. Just last March, Duterte said, “It is my job to scare people, to intimidate people, and to kill people.” Bowman told The Intercept, “I’m afraid, I’m just scared.” A typhoon hit the Philippines this weekend, and Huynh hoped that it would delay Bowman’s deportation long enough to convince ICE that she is a citizen.
“Our government should not be deporting U.S. citizens,” said Stevens, the Northwestern professor. “It should be protecting them.”
Update: November 2, 2020, 4:32 p.m.
This story has been updated to reflect that Bowman’s deportation was stayed and to include a statement from Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga. made after publication.
Correction: November 2, 2020, 4:32 p.m.
This story has been corrected to note the proper attribution of a quote to Leann Culbreath, rather than Priyanka Bhatt. The story has also been updated to correct the sentence for Bowman’s conviction on forgery charges.