The Third Rail: Reproductive Health Needs of Immigrant Women

Gloria Steinem's recent New York Times op-ed, "Women Are Never Front-Runners," got one thing right: feminism is absent from the 2008 presidential debates. What it means to be a woman and what we contribute to this country has been lost in the recent political discourse. What we as women of color and immigrant women contribute is not even close to entering into the conversation–not to mention the absence of meaningful discussion about our broken immigration system. Instead, how we can fix our immigration system has been skirted around or, even worse, used as a wedge issue.

A meaningful discussion about how women are impacted by policies other than those that are considered just "women's issues," is long overdue, most simply because all issues are women's issues. This is particularly true of immigration policy. But unfortunately, on the campaign trail, if you add women plus immigration you end up with third rail politics. Immigrants crossing borders?! Women and their uteruses?! Discussed within the same breath?!?! Our political system may just shutdown.

Historically, rhetoric on immigration has been racist, xenophobic, vitriolic…and male focused, and this rhetoric continues today. Our immigration policy is based on the perception that men come to the U.S. to work and later sponsor their partners and children to come once they have "settled." Yet that is not always how it happens. In fact, it is often a matter of survival for an immigrant woman to leave her country. For some women, leaving one's birthplace is a necessity due to economic limitations. Other women are persecuted simply for being women, while some may leave because the political and legal situation gives them no other alternative. But what is common to many Latina immigrants' experience in the U.S. today, whether undocumented or not, is that they are experiencing reproductive health disparities precisely because they are women and because they are immigrants. As an advocate for both women and immigrants, I have had the experience, at both the grassroots and policy levels, to see some of the particular obstacles faced by Latina immigrants.

Latina immigrants who make it to the U.S. border are subjected to mental, physical, sexual and verbal violence by smugglers and traffickers. Traffickers and smugglers take advantage of Latina immigrants' vulnerability, lack of information and fear. Consequently, Latina immigrants face many reproductive health disparities as a result of mental, physical and sexual violence, such as unintended pregnancies and increased risk of contracting HIV and other STIs. But these forms of violence do not end at the border.

Our present U.S. immigration policy makes it easy for employers to exploit immigrant women. Without a viable path to citizenship, Latina immigrant women are more likely to be undocumented and thus more vulnerable to economic exploitation. Some undocumented Latina immigrants are often paid unlivable wages and are exposed to toxic and harmful by-products of agricultural, domestic and factory work that places their overall health in jeopardy, but particularly their reproductive health with higher rates of birth defects and other problems. In the face of such reproductive health disparities, access to immediate, safe and affordable health care is crucial. Unfortunately Latina immigrants face huge obstacles in accessing publicly funded healthcare that would provide preventative services and treatment.

Latina immigrants who are able to gain legal permanent residence must live in the U.S. for five continuous years before they are eligible for publicly funded health programs. Health insurance is often not provided in the types of jobs Latina immigrants tend to hold and their wages aren't enough to cover out of pocket reproductive healthcare. The result is that many Latina immigrants forgo getting basic and necessary healthcare. In light of the violence that many Latina immigrants must confront on a daily basis, five years is a long time to wait to access these important reproductive health services. Latina immigrants also face such barriers as lack of facilities to seek care, especially if they live in rural communities; medical staff who do not have the linguistic or cultural competence to provide Latina immigrants with proper translations and explanations of procedures and consent forms; and physical isolation if they cannot find transportation to arrive at a hospital or clinic.

We must all remember that immigrant women often care for our children, harvest our foods, staff our hospitals and otherwise occupy the range of professions that exist in this country. Therefore, when policymakers do not advocate for immigrant families to have health care, educational opportunities and to live with dignity, what is perpetuated is racism, xenophobia, class-ism and misogyny, all of which plague our public policies. Consequently, the impact of our immigration policy (not to mention agricultural, big business, military, trade and foreign policies) on the lives of immigrant women is serious, long lasting and often irreversible.

How we treat the most vulnerable individuals, undocumented immigrant women and their children, is a reflection of the ethical and moral compass of our society. Presently, this compass points to a direction that allows elitist and inhumane factors to dictate who is worthy to work, to have a proper education, housing and food, and the basic human right to health and reproductive health. A true and comprehensive dialogue on immigration is presently moot in these presidential debates, but the impending months will be an interesting time for the country to see where presidential candidates stand on health care and immigration and if nominees will present a true and comprehensive vision for salud, dignidad y justicia for all.

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  • invalid-0

    well said! great post Aishia.

  • invalid-0

    Honestly, can you not see? These women are ILLEGAL. I am sick of people saying “they’re people, too.” Obviously, they’re people, but like all human beings, they have brains. I love to argue that women are smarter than men, but in some aspects, we are not. Take these “Latinas” for example. They are the ones that subject themselves to everything you mentioned. THEY are the ones who have a choice of being either a slut or a strong woman. THEY are the ones who have the brains and guts to stand up for themselves in their own countries and live there instead of coming up to America and taking OUR tax dollars for their “anchor babies.” I am so sick of having this debate. If women want to be treated equally, they had better start making some smart decisions. Likewise, if those illegal women want to be treated equally, they had BETTER come in the right and legal way and then pay taxes to help themselves. Our glorious country will no longer exist if we continue to let criminals like those who jump the border come in. I do not know how else I can put this.

  • invalid-0

    How can you decide between being a decent woman or a “slut” if you are raped by your boss in the fields or the “coyote” who charges you to cross the border??? If you complain there is “La Migra” or immigration to throw you back to Mexico etc.

    Walk a mile in their shoes and drop your holier than thou attitude. Better yet go pick chile in the fields. That’s a fun job.

  • invalid-0

    Thank you for for this wonderful piece. This kind of honest discourse both brings visibility to the important issues in your article and exposes how deeply ingrained white supremacist ideologies via Alison_23’s response.

    Please don’t think that means I’m assuming you are white, plenty of people of color have been indoctrinated too… it’s hard to escape it if you are raised in the US or have been exposed to the media here. If you get a chance, read the anthology “The Color of Violence,” especially the piece by Andrea Smith, “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy.”
    It may change the course of your entire life.

  • invalid-0

    I whole-heartedly agree, Alison: if I don’t like the way that a woman lives her life, we should let her die! What, you were raped? Sorry, you crossed the border illegally! No medical after-care for you! Being abused by your boss? Sorry, you crossed the border illegally! You must have been asking for it.

    When will people get that, unlike with every other crime in the universe, when you cross the border illegally, you yourself become illegal! And that, unlike with every other crime in the universe, when you commit it, you forgo your basic human right of health care! Not that hard! All you have to do is think about how things works for those of us in the privileged world, and then apply the exact opposite to undocumented immigrants. See how the GOP kept that simple for us?

    As Alison so insightfully points out to us, undocumented immigrants are humans, but that doesn’t mean they get human rights! Because Alison thinks that they’re stupid. And Alison is allowed to revoke the humanity of women of color at her whim, regardless of whether she has ever met them. Alison’s opinions on things about which she apparently knows absolutely nothing are so very awesome that we should use them as a basis for allowing people to suffer. Honestly, can’t you see?

    . . .

    On a less infuriating note, great article, thanks for writing it.

  • marysia

    Aishia, thank you for bringing up the reproductive justice issues surrounding immigrant women, especially those who are undocumented.  A few years back, I worked as a pregnancy counselor.  Many of my clients were Mexicanas, some of them without papers, and thank G-d for the doctors and midwives who would provide them with prenatal and birthing care at no to little cost without subjecting them to any citizenship test.

    Alison, blaming our fellow human beings for being in the US illegally and takng a "now you made your bed, now lie in it" approach is only going to make matters worse.  In my personal and professional experience with immigrants from many nationalities–most would much prefer to stay where they came from, it is just that educational and job opportunities are even worse in their own countries than in the US.  And the barriers to legal immigration are made so formidable, time-consuming, and frequently insurmountable.

    Any real, humane solution needs to address the reasons why people leave their birthlands, especially when so many would rather not.  And this through the promotion of local, self-determined economic development in the poorer nations.  And in the US, how are we ever going to arrive at such solutions if we can't even treat the immigrants, especially the undocumented, among us as equal in humanity?  Not to mention that there is no such thing as an "illegal" person anyway.  The concept of the "illegal" immigrant just reminds me so much of the historic branding of nonmaritally conceived persons as "illegitimate." 

    As if a human being could be invalid in his or her very existence….Such a different ethical and political stance than the one behind Martin Luther King's  speaking of all humans as tied up in a "single garment of destiny."

  • invalid-0

    Here’s more to add to my previous post. Five great points that were just published in Anti-racism 101: Getting it Right.

    1) White people have white privilege and move through the world with it.

    2) When we hold racial justice at the center of our activism, we must consider the intersections with other oppressions/activisms.

    3) Being queer, or otherwise marginalized, doesn’t exempt us from white privilege and white supremacy.

    4) Don’t do this work from a place of guilt, but from a place of intent and activism toward social justice and liberation.

    5) White privilege and white supremacy is incredibly damaging to white people, too.

    I would just like to echo that last point.

  • marysia

    The National Council for La Raza has this website to help counter some unfortunate trends in the immigration debate:

    <a href="">We Can Stop the Hate</a>