Reproductive Justice for Latinas: The Struggle Continues

Immigrant women face considerable obstacles in accessing health care, including low-paying jobs without health insurance and linguistic and cultural barriers.  On Sunday, I will march for reproductive justices.  Will you join me?

On Sunday, March 21st, I will be marching on the streets of DC, demanding comprehensive immigration reform.  I will be there representing the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, along with some of our amazing activists. But as an organization whose mission it is to ensure the human right to reproductive health and justice for Latinas, it is sometimes unclear to people why we would be present at an immigrants’ rights march. The answer is, of course, that immigrants’ rights are deeply tied to reproductive justice.

First, immigration status is tied to health care access in many ways. Immigrant women are often forced to work in low-paying industries, such as food service and seasonal farm work.  These jobs provide neither health benefits nor the incomes needed to purchase private insurance plans for themselves or their families.  

In addition to being unable to access private health care, otherwise-eligible undocumented women do not qualify for public programs such as Medicaid in most states.  Even immigrants who are in the United States lawfully, however, face barriers to accessing care – since 1996, a restriction known as the five-year bar prohibits immigrants who have been legal permanent residents of the United States for less than five years from accessing public programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.  These restrictions make access to basic reproductive health care such as regular Pap smears, contraceptive advice and supplies, and abortion services difficult, if not impossible.  It is no surprise that the women who have caused media stirs because of their self-induced abortions have been immigrant Latinas, who because of financial constraints, fears about accessing health care services as an undocumented person, or a lack of culturally and linguistically competent providers in their communities, were forced to take matters into their own hands when they felt they had no other choice, putting their own health at risk.

Second, the reproductive choices of immigrants get scrutinized and talked about in ways that are xenophobic, racist and sexist.  Anti-immigrant legislators have gone so far as to propose legislation that denies citizenship to all born on U.S. soil.  Alarmist articles about Latina teen pregnancy bemoan young motherhood as a bad cultural traitand make stigmatizing social cost argumentsabout Latina mothers.  Even if these do not mention immigration, it is impossible to remove the immigrant context from the ways Latinas are talked about – regardless of whether we have been here for generations or got here yesterday.

Third, the abuses encountered by people in immigration detention centers are unspeakable, and are often tied with issues of reproductive justice.  Sexual abuse is not uncommon, and access to emergency contraception or abortion services while in detention is spotty at best.  Women who give birth in detention are routinely shackled during labor, and stories like that of Juana Villegas – who was shackled during labor and whose child was taken away from her after birth, leading to a number of health repercussions for her and the baby – are, sadly, unsurprising.

And as with any institution that segregates people by gender, immigration detention centers are frequently unfriendly spaces for transgender and gender non-conforming people.  Trans people are rarely given the choice of men or women’s facilities rather, they are placed where detention officers decide that they belong, possibly exposing them to violence, or in isolation, a practice which is increasingly likened to torture.

Stories of trans people who experienced egregious abuses have emerged, including sexual abuse and denial of mental health care. One immigrant trans woman, after being denied HIV medication and proper care for over two months, died shackled to her hospital bed. People have disappeared in immigration detention, and there are stories of deaths and abuses. None of these include the secret detention centers, which have been recently uncovered. Moreover, reproductive health and immigrants’ rights advocates share a common opposition: the same legislators who try to chip away at abortion rights and contraceptive access are behind anti-immigrant policies.

It should not come as a surprise that the battle for health care reform has been fought on the bodies of women and immigrants – we are constantly used as wedges in the extreme right’s divide-and-conquer strategy. For these reasons, and many more, reproductive justice advocates from all over the country are descending on DC this weekend to demand an end to the unfair and destructive deportations, raids and detentions.

I encourage you to join me.