Since 2018, in the wake of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy of deterrence which separated children from their families at the border, Government Accountability Project has provided legal representation and advocacy support to more than two dozen federal and contractor whistleblowers working within the U.S. immigration apparatus. These employees of conscience have spoken up despite the risk of retaliation to issue warnings and expose systemic abuses, gross mismanagement, illegality, and harm to immigrant children and adults, workers and communities caused by illegal and dangerous immigration policies, practices, and conditions in the United States, exacerbated by layers of oversight failures.

Whistleblowers have been vital to catalyzing oversight and accountability measures and to bring about an end to some of the immigration system’s worst abuses. Government Accountability Project, using the power of credible information provided from the uniquely valuable perspective of employee whistleblowers, has helped fuel activism from immigrant justice organizations and professional associations, prompted congressional and agency investigations, supported lawsuits, driven policy changes, and even ended some of the worst abuses, including the sterilization of immigrant women, perpetrated on vulnerable people in detention.

Government Accountability Project is proud to represent immigration whistleblowers, who help hold our immigration system accountable to the public and to high standards of human rights. If you are an employee or contractor in the U.S. immigration system and are considering blowing the whistle, fill out our secure intake form here.

Focus Areas

Harm to children and adults in immigration detention

Through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the United States operates an extensive civil immigration detention system which imprisons both noncitizens arrested in communities in the interior of the U.S. and those who have recently entered the country, including people seeking asylum protection. Many adult immigration prisons are operated by private corporations motivated by profit incentive in a system defined by dehumanization, xenophobia, and minimal transparency. 

Additionally, across both Democrat and Republican administrations, children have been imprisoned in various iterations of DHS detention facilities. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also has authority to hold children who enter the U.S. without their parents in custody and maintains both an extensive “shelter” system along with, beginning in 2021, “emergency” sites to house large numbers of unaccompanied migrant children. 

Whistleblowers represented by Government Accountability Project have spoken up to expose some of the worst abuses in the immigration detention system:

  • Solitary Confinement: Attorney Ellen Gallagher has for more than eight years been blowing the whistle on ICE’s widespread use of solitary confinement on medically vulnerable and mentally ill immigrants in civil detention, which is recognized as torture by the United Nations.

  • Child Detention: Drs. Scott Allen and Pam McPherson, both medical experts contracted with the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, have spoken out, through multiple administrations, about the harm to children caused by immigration detention. Beginning in 2021, multiple whistleblowers have also raised concerns about HHS operations at an emergency tent site built to hold immigrant children at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.

  • Medical Mistreatment & Failed Covid Response: Immigration prisons have a long history of medical neglect toward those in their custody. In 2020, nurse Dawn Wooten spoke out about medical mistreatment of immigrant women in immigration detention at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. Along with calls for accountability from detained women, Nurse Wooten’s disclosures prompted multiple agency and congressional investigations and led DHS to sever the contract between ICE and the private prison operator, LaSalle Corrections. Nurse Wooten, along with multiple anonymous LaSalle employees at the Richwood Detention Center in Richwood, Louisiana, also spoke out about the failures of LaSalle and DHS to ensure the safety of noncitizens in custody, workers at the prisons, and local communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. These failures occurred despite warnings from Dr. Scott Allen with Dr. Josiah “Jody” Rich that immigration detention centers would be “tinderbox[es]” of contagion during the pandemic

Illegal and Harmful Immigration Policies

An ever-fraught political issue, immigration policies and enforcement priorities shift with each administration. As noncitizens, immigrants are frequently scapegoated and used as political pawns to varying degrees across both Democrat and Republican administrations. When new, harmful, and often illegal policies are enacted, whistleblowers consistently stand ready to speak out against them.

  • Family Detention and “Zero Tolerance” Family Separations: Drs. Scott Allen and Pam McPherson, both medical experts for the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, conducted 10 inspections of immigration prisons for families between 2014 and 2018, raising concerns about systemic failures to meet minimum standards of care for children. In the aftermath of President Trump’s 2018 “Zero Tolerance” enforcement policy of family separation, Drs. Allen and McPherson raised the alarm that the proposed alternative to separations, detaining families together, was untenable. Drs. Allen and McPherson again raised concern about the harms caused by family detention in 2023 when reports surfaced that the Biden administration, which initially ceased the practice of detaining families in 2021, was considering its re-implementation.

  • “Migrant Protection Protocols” (MPP) also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy:  In 2019, the Trump administration implemented MPP which sent asylum seekers at the southern border to Mexico, where they faced targeted violence, to wait for hearings on their immigration case. Asylum Officers were assigned to conduct cursory screening interviews to determine whether an asylum seeker faced a sufficient threshold of harm in Mexico to merit entry to the U.S. Asylum Officer Doug Stephens quickly refused to participate in the program, and with support from Michael Knowles, the Asylum Officers’ union president, spoke out about the unlawful policy.

  • Title 42 border closure: With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump Administration invoked public health authority under Title 42 of the U.S. Code to close the southern border. Drs. Scott Allen and Pam McPherson spoke out against the administration’s spurious claims that halting immigration was necessary to protect public health. The implementation of Title 42 resulted in minors, exempted from the immigration restriction, entering the U.S. without their parents to seek safety. These children were then sent to the HHS emergency tent site at Fort Bliss where numerous federal employees detailed to support the emergency response effort spoke out about dangerous operations.

Whistleblower Profiles

Whistleblowers play an essential role in the environmental movement and in shaping public policy and corporate practices.

Nurse Dawn Wooten

Ms. Dawn Wooten, LPN, worked as a nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center (ICDC), an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) immigration detention center in Ocilla, Georgia. As COVID-19 began to spread like wildfire in early 2020, particularly in congregate settings like immigration detention facilities, Ms. Wooten became gravely concerned about failures at ICDC to comply with CDC guidelines and protect immigrants and workers alike from the coronavirus and other misconduct, including shredding detainees’ requests for medical care. In addition, numerous immigrant women detainees began to ask her about gynecological procedures they underwent that made them sterile without understanding what they experienced or why. Ms. Wooten began raising concerns internally to her supervisors about the harmful conditions and medical mistreatment at ICDC, only to find herself demoted to an on-call position with no subsequent calls for work. Unable to stay silent knowing about the risk of ongoing harm to the immigrants detained at ICDC, she secured Government Accountability Project’s pro bono legal representation to assist her in filing whistleblower complaints with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) in September 2020.

Ms. Wooten and her explosive disclosures went viral, inciting passionate calls for reform from immigration justice organizations, medical professionals, and members of Congress. More than 170 members of Congress called for investigations into conditions at ICDC; a Congressional delegation visited ICDC to speak with Ms. Wooten as well as women survivors of medical mistreatment; and the House of Representatives passed a resolution formally condemning the forced medical procedures, citing Ms. Wooten’s complaint. Congress and the Office of Inspector General initiated investigations into the disclosures and into the unlawful retaliation against Ms. Wooten for her whistleblowing.

On May 20, 2021, DHS Secretary Mayorkas ordered that ICE end the use of ICDC as an immigration detention facility based on the findings of ongoing investigations spurred by Ms. Wooten and the women survivors who came forward, stating: “We will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention.” On September 4, 2021, it was reported that all immigrants had been removed from ICDC and transferred to other ICE detention facilities.

On November 15, 2022, the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs conducted a hearing on Medical Mistreatment of Women in ICE Detention. Information shared in the hearing validated the reports of Ms. Wooten from 2020. For instance, disturbingly, though ICDC held only 4% of the entire female population in ICE custody, ICE contracted medical provider for ICDC Dr. Mahendra Amin was responsible for 90% of the four types of invasive gynecological procedures performed on the detained ICE population nationwide. Furthermore, the Assistant Director of the ICE Health Service Corps (“IHSC”), Stewart D. Smith, DHSc, indicated that from at least 2017-2020, the IHSC had virtually no oversight systems in place to vet contracted off-site medical providers or review the medical care they provided to people in ICE custody. Indeed, Smith testified that the IHSC was not aware of concerns with off-site medical providers until DHS received Ms. Wooten’s whistleblower disclosures.   

Ms. Wooten’s whistleblowing catalyzed enormous and rapid change. But Ms. Wooten’s ethical courage came at a price. LaSalle, which has still never officially terminated Ms. Wooten, has never called her for shifts despite posting regularly for desperately needed nursing positions. Recognized locally as “the whistleblower,” Ms. Wooten was unable for months to secure employment—as a nurse during a time of unprecedented demand—because of resentment or fear of her whistleblowing. As a single, Black mother of five children, the experience of whistleblowing has produced enormous emotional, mental, physical and financial strain on Ms. Wooten and her family. 

Ms. Wooten, however, has no regrets for speaking out about what she discovered at ICDC. She was named a Giraffe Hero by the nonprofit Giraffe Heroes Project, 3 was chosen as a subject for the Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait series, and has been the recipient of several national awards, including the 2021 Joe Callaway Award for Civic Courage, the Feleta Wilson award from the Public Health Nursing Section of the American Public Health Association, the 2022 Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) Award, and the 2022 HMH Foundation First Amendment Award for her commitment to truth-telling and human rights. Government Accountability Project is honored to represent Ms. Wooten and continues to fight for justice for Ms. Wooten for the wrongful retaliation she experienced for her whistleblowing.

Dr. Scott Allen and Dr. Pam McPherson

In July 2018, Government Accountability Project clients Dr. Scott Allen and Dr. Pamela McPherson, medical and mental health subject matter experts for the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (DHS/CRCL), made the brave decision to blow the whistle on the government’s child detention practices. Through their disclosures, they sought to prevent the ongoing risk of harm to children and families posed by the Trump administration’s implementation of its “zero-tolerance” immigration policy at the U.S. southern border.

After conducting 10 investigations of family detention centers over the course of four years, Drs. Allen and McPherson made disclosures to the DHS Inspector General, the Director of CRCL, the Senate Whistleblower Caucus leadership, and other members of Congress. They revealed evidence of gross mismanagement and failures to comply with legal standards governing family detention facilities that resulted in direct harm to children. They described cases in which children experienced severe weight loss, accidental vaccinations with adult doses, and dangerously slow medical attention. A week after Dr. McPherson and Dr. Allen presented their findings to U.S. Senators Grassley and Wyden, 14 medical and mental health provider organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Pediatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, and the American Psychological Association sent a letter in solidarity with the doctors to Senate and House leadership. Government Accountability Project worked with the doctors to develop testimony for Senate hearings and brief members of Congress on the doctors’ disclosures.

In November 2018, Drs. Allen and McPherson spoke to the American public directly for the first time in an interview with 60 Minutes, sharing their experience as DHS whistleblowers and condemning threats to children’s health and safety under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. Heightened press promoted an invitation to participate in a congressional delegation (codel) in December 2018 to the border led by Senators Merkley, Hirono and Smith and Representative Chu. The codel tragically coincided with the news that seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin died in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody; we helped Drs. Allen and McPherson publish an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, titled “We warned DHS that a migrant child could die in custody. Now one has.” At least four additional migrant children in border custody died during the Trump administration. 

Significantly, Drs. Allen’s and McPhersons disclosures were leveraged by immigration justice groups: their disclosures were referenced to successfully seek the release of infants under one from family detention centers, and used as support for more than 90 written comments opposing DHS’s effort to overturn the Flores settlement agreement (they submitted their own written comments as well). 

Drs. Allen’s and McPhersons warnings as DHS’s own medical experts about harms from to children from immigrant detention settings were vital additions to calls to end the practice. In late 2021, the Biden administration largely ended the practice. When news broke in March 2023 that the Biden administration was reconsidering family detention, the doctors again spoke up, writing a letter to the Biden Administration cautioning against the re-implementation of the practice.

Drs. Allen and McPherson sought legal advice and support from Government Accountability Project before escalating their concerns about harms to children, creating a path to insulate them from retaliation as they exercised their whistleblower rights in raising concerns to their managers, to DHS OIG, Congress and the press. Not only did they not suffer reprisal for their moral courage, they have been recognized by both Physicians for Human Rights and the prestigious Ridenhour Prize for Truth-Telling as heroes for their whistleblowing. They along with their counsel, Government Accountability Project’s Dana Gold, published an article in 2022, “The Physician’s Role in Confronting Humanitarian Challenges: A Guide for Action,” about their experience as whistleblowers with advice for other physicians about speaking up in the face of threats of medical harm.

NewsNation: East Palestine residents ‘getting sicker,’ testing expert says

"The EPA has stonewalled and Freedom of Information Act request and the EPA has refused to test residents that apparently are showing health symptoms. The EPA is refusing to test their property. Those are two things that are very suspicious. Why is the EPA not testing residents' soil and indoor air, and what does the EPA have to hide? Why won't they produce the FOIA request?"

Government Accountability Project launches investigation into East Palestine disaster response, files FOIA lawsuit against EPA, provides citizen whistleblower protection for independent scientist Scott Smith

Government Accountability Project is launching its own investigation into the EPA’s response to the East Palestine train derailment and providing citizen whistleblower protection to Scott Smith, the independent scientist who uncovered significantly elevated levels of dioxins and related compounds, or furans, in East Palestine, Ohio.

NBC: Whistleblowers say U.S. government’s poor oversight may have led to migrant kids working unsafe and illegal jobs

A watchdog group representing federal whistleblowers raised new concerns to Congress on Wednesday about the performance of the Health and Human Services Department, the agency tasked with sheltering unaccompanied migrant children after they cross the border, saying poor oversight may have led to children working in unsafe and illegal conditions inside the United States.

Dr. Scott Allen and Dr. Josiah “Jody” Rich

In February and March 2020, at the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we helped our client Dr. Scott Allen – who had formerly raised concerns with his colleague Dr. Pamela McPherson about the risk of harm to children in ICE detention – and new client Dr.  Josiah “Jody” Rich, both national experts in detention health and subject matter experts for DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL), warn DHS and Congress about the risk to immigrants, workers and the public from the spread of COVID-19 in ICE detention. Drs. Allen and Rich warned that because of the congregate settings and frequent transfers of immigrants and staff in and out of the facilities, ICE detention would create a dangerous “tinderbox” for the spread of the coronavirus.  

Drs. Allen’s and Rich’s letter to Congress was cited in support of emergency release petitions for detainees in immigrant detention vulnerable to COVID. Hundreds of detainees were ordered released based on these litigation efforts, including numerous at-risk immigrants across the country covered by the Fraihat v. ICE class action litigation 

Dr. Rich worked with his public health expert colleagues to coordinate a research project by epidemiologists, data scientists, criminologists that modeled both the rate of spread of COVID-19 in every ICE detention facility and the predicted impact on local public health facilities within 10 and 50-mile radiuses of each facility. The study was published in May 2020 in the Journal of Urban Health, was widely covered in the media and was used to support litigation and advocacy efforts seeking release of immigrants from detention.  Dr. Allen included reference to this study, as well as repeating his and Dr. Rich’s call for widespread release of immigrants in civil detention to slow the spread of COVID-19, in his testimony as a witness at a Senate Judiciary Hearing, “Examining Best Practices for Incarceration and Detention During COVID-19,” on June 2, 2020.

With the inauguration of the Biden Administration, Drs. Allen and Rich, along with Dr. Pamela McPherson, renewed their warnings to DHS CRCL and then to the White House Coronavirus Response Team and the White House COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force about the spread of COVID in ICE detention as the virus continued to rage with little change to immigration detention settings. Finally, in May 2021, they escalated the warnings to Congress about the unaddressed massive public health threat and the failure to issue a federal mandate for the distribution of widely available vaccines to immigrants in ICE detention, in contrast to the approach taken by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Their letter, covered by the New York Times and other outlets, helped support calls for vaccination and release of immigrants by allies at the ACLU and others—part of an intentional strategy made possible by our close alliances with those leading litigation and advocacy efforts on behalf of detained immigrants. 

As a result of this advocacy, vaccinations increased in ICE detention, and Drs. Allen and Rich continue to press for improved distribution as well as education to build trust around vaccine acceptance. Dr. Allen particularly has been a outspoken, credible voice as a DHS medical expert and national expert in detention health, supporting congressional investigations and forums that have well-documented the failures by ICE and its contractors to meet the medical needs of immigrants in ICE detention.

Attorney Ellen Gallagher

Ellen Gallagher is a former policy adviser at the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (DHS-CRCL) and current employee at the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG). She has blown the whistle on Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) use of solitary confinement on mentally ill and medically vulnerable adults across the 200+ immigration detention facilities in clear violation of federal laws and detention standards. In 2014, as an attorney working for DHS’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL), Ms. Gallagher began raising concerns internally about ICE’s systemic use of solitary confinement on mentally ill and medically vulnerable immigrants in civil detention to CRCL, DHS Office of Inspector General, and the Office of Special Counsel. 

When the agencies failed to adequately address her allegations, Ms. Gallagher also sought assistance from Congress to pursue the issues. Ms. Gallagher, having reported these concerns repeatedly for years only to see abuses from ICE escalate as detention increased under the administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, finally sought to bring public attention to the issue by speaking with International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, The Intercept and NBC News in 2019. 

Increasing congressional oversight and reform efforts, including the introduction of legislation that would end the use of solitary confinement in immigrant detention, helped instigate an audit by DHS OIG in 2021 that validated Ms. Gallagher’s disclosures. The audit found failures to collect, retain, and report data about the use of solitary confinement as well as failures to comply with policies that require considering less restrictive alternatives.

On September 22, 2022, Ms. Gallagher participated in a congressional briefing, concerning ICE’s excessive use of solitary confinement on mentally ill detainees. Held by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and sponsored by Congressman Joaquin Castro, the briefing also featured advocates who were directly impacted by the systemic use of solitary confinement in immigrant detention and a neurologist with expertise in detention health.

Government Accountability Project and Ms. Gallagher together continue to advocate relentlessly for the end of the wrongful and widespread use of solitary confinement in civil immigrant detention.

Former Asylum Officer Doug Stephens

Doug Stephens worked as an Asylum Officer in the San Francisco Asylum office from September 2017 until August 31, 2019. In his two years as an Asylum Officer, he conducted and adjudicated more than 350 Affirmative Asylum interviews, Credible Fear screenings, and Reasonable Fear screenings. Prior to his service in the asylum corps, Mr. Stephens was a Department of Justice (DOJ) staff attorney for the San Francisco Immigration Court from September 2015 to September 2017, and during his time he reviewed 195 cases and drafted 96 judicial decisions.

After conducting five interviews under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP or “Remain in Mexico” program), Mr. Stephens refused to conduct further interviews, believing that implementing MPP violated numerous laws and treaty obligations and posed a significant threat of harm to asylum seekers forced to remain in Mexico. After facing retaliation, he documented in writing the reasons for his concerns to his superiors in a seven-point memo and resigned in August 2019. Aware of the potential for further retaliation, Mr. Stephens sought aid from the Asylum Officers’ designated spokesperson and union president, Michael Knowles, and went to Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) to disclose his concerns that implementing MPP would violate the law and endanger migrants. His disclosures became an integral part of a report issued by Senator Merkley on November 14, 2019, “Shattered Refuge: A U.S. Senate Investigation into the Trump Administration’s Gutting of Asylum.” His disclosures have also been reported extensively in the media including in  The Washington Post, The New York Times, This American Life and The Los Angeles Times (the latter two together won the Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for their joint reporting). Additionally, Stephens submitted a statement in the record for a November 19, 2019 House Committee on Home Security’s Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation, and Operations Hearing, “Examining the Human Rights and legal Implications of DHS’ ‘Remain in Mexico’ Policy.”

Mr. Stephens’s choice to speak up as an asylum officer to decry the policy’s illegality and harmful effects supported widespread awareness of the problematic policy along with more aggressive calls for its end by activists and in lengthy litigation. The Biden administration has been pressured to commit to essentially end the MPP policy. No new cases are being referred to the MPP process, yet litigation about the legality of the program continues.

Doug Stephens

Doug Stephens Doug Stephens is a former Asylum Officer who resigned from USCIS in August 2019. He worked [...]

Fort Bliss Whistleblowers

Government Accountability Project represents ten whistleblowers, both federal employee detailees and contractors, who have raised concerns about unsafe conditions for minors and operational failures, including case management and sponsorship problems, at the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) emergency site at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.  

Our first whistleblower clients were federal employees who volunteered on detail to support efforts to receive unaccompanied minors at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Following their volunteer details, they first shared their concerns with HHS OIG in 2021 as they witnessed horrific harms to children, including lack of medical care, serious case management flaws resulting in lengthy detention, and poor conditions for children particularly held in enormous tent structures. Initially, two whistleblowers, Justin Mulaire and Laurie Elkin, raised their concerns publicly. Soon after, two more federal volunteers, Arthur Pearlstein and Lauren Reinhold, spoke out about what they witnessed at Fort Bliss. In April 2022, our client Kaitlin Hess chose to make her whistleblower concerns public as HHS had yet to make assurances that conditions for children had improved at Fort Bliss. This public pressure spurred the HHS OIG to initiate investigations into ORR operations at Fort Bliss and prompted some operational improvements. The remainder of our whistleblower clients have chosen to remain anonymous, some fearing retaliation.  

In early 2023, reports surfaced that children who passed through HHS custody were found in situations of hazardous and unlawful child labor, including, for example, overnight clean-up of slaughterhouses. HHS has since conducted audits and investigations into release operations of children from custody, but  gaps remain in oversight, including failures to address the lack of childcare experience of companies contracted to manage care of children in ORR custody. Government Accountability Project continues to monitor oversight problems and the treatment of unaccompanied minors in HHS ORR emergency sites.

Our Work

As part of our methodology to ensure that whistleblowers’ disclosures make a difference, Government Accountability Project works with our clients to tailor a personalized disclosure strategy that may include the publication of op-eds, press statements, complaints, and letters, along with working with the media and civil society groups to amplify our whistleblowers’ disclosures.

Read about our work with immigration whistleblowers here:

Full Measure: Dawn Wooten

Full Measure: Dawn Wooten This article features Government Accountability Project whistleblower client, Dawn Wooten, and was originally published here. [...]


Government Accountability Project publishes books, articles, reports, white papers, and guides to whistleblowing. We work with journalists and public interest organizations who can use our whistleblower clients’ disclosures to leverage change, and we also support journalists and public interest organizations with information and support when they encounter potential whistleblowers.

We invite whistleblowers, journalists, and public interest organizations to contact us for assistance.