Abortion Bans Are Bad For Immigrant Health + Human Rights

By Nzingha H.

Immigrant communities in the U.S. face immense challenges in achieving bodily autonomy and reproductive justice, and abortion bans exacerbate the problem. From harsh immigration policies that exacerbate barriers to clinical procedures, to lack of access to contraception and prenatal care. Persons living in the U.S. without permanent legal status risk family separation and deportation when trying to access reproductive health services in places like hospitals and clinics; medical settings are often heavily policed, lack structural cultural competency, and can promote an environment of xenophobic hostility.

Abortion bans disproportionately harm undocumented immigrants, who may fear legal repercussions or officials reporting them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if they seek care. Immigrant minors in government custody, such as foster care or detention centers, also face routine obstruction accessing abortion; many are forced to go to court to get a judicial bypass just for the care they need.

In Texas, it has been reported that immigrants seeking abortion care may actually threaten their citizenship status if they travel out of a set mile-radius for their procedure. This especially impacts immigrants who live in the Southern region of the U.S., a region that is now considered an abortion desert. Undocumented folks cannot risk the possible ramifications of hyper-surveillance while traveling outside of Southern states to receive abortion care. Furthermore, we know that the consequences for undocumented folks — imprisonment in immigrant detention centers — is itself great issue for reproductive justice. 

In 2020, an investigation by Project South found that immigrants at ICE facilities in Georgia have been subjected to unwarranted gynecological procedures, unwanted sterilizations, and substandard reproductive healthcare. A whistleblower nurse at Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia revealed an alarming rate of hysterectomies being performed on immigrant detainees without their full consent. Reports indicate detainees were pushed into procedures they did not fully understand or agree to, with their objections disregarded and questions left unanswered. A subsequent lawsuit filed by Project South, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG), highlighted the urgent need for transparency and accountability, as lawyers strongly believe there’s a broader pattern of ICE evading oversight and destroying records of human rights abuses within DHS immigration detention. 

These invasive, non-consensual practices are a horrific violation of bodily autonomy and ethics, and they recall past atrocities like forced sterilizations of Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Black Americans. The fight for reproductive justice demands shutting down these prison facilities that allow for human rights abuses to occur, holding ICE and detention centers fully accountable, and advocating for immigrant reproductive justice!

Additionally, immigrants without legal work authorization cannot access vital programs such as Medicaid in most states, and are excluded from the Affordable Care Act marketplace subsidies as well. Because of this, undocumented immigrants often rely on federally-mandated emergency care, or pay enormous out-of-pocket costs for reproductive healthcare. This creates a huge financial barrier for those seeking necessary reproductive care, and deters preventive services.

Cultural and language barriers may also impact immigrants’ ability to navigate reproductive healthcare, as we know that cultural competency is not a required standard of care within the U.S. healthcare system. Family planning clinics often lack multilingual staff or interpreters, and immigrants may experience mistreatment by providers with limited cultural competence. Furthermore, smaller, independent abortion funds may sometimes struggle with the capacity to support callers with language barriers.

We know that immigration to the U.S. does not occur in a vacuum, rather it is the U.S. imperialist foreign policies, wars, and detabilization globally that create the conditions that force many families to migrate here. We also know that immigration is not a ubiquitous experience. Black migrants from Caribbean, Latin American, and African nations face unique challenges as they journey to the Global North. Haitian migrants who seek asylum to the U.S. encounter numerous barriers and hardships as they flee their native country, which this month is facing a U.S.-led invasion. The racism that Haitians have faced is strong. In fact, in their 2022 report ‘They Did Not Treat Us Like People’: Race and Migration-Related Torture and Other Ill-Treatment of Haitians Seeking Safety in the USA, Amnesty International concluded that Haitian migrants faced raced-base torture, pain, and mental suffering. We, as Black-led reproductive justice practitioners, see the parallels to the harm that Haitian citizens face. Black birthing folks and other marginalized groups encounter anti-Black racism in medical and healthcare settings, resulting in high rates of maternal morbidity and mortality, as Black migrants face racism in immigration. 

Reproductive Justice demands a safe, sustainable environment to safeguard and raise children and families. Often, due to civil unrest, war, underdevelopment, or political instability, many have no choice but to leave their homes and find refuge and solace in North America. While over 200,000 Ukrainian refugees found their new homes in the U.S after fleeing from the Russian–Ukrainian war, conversely, many Guatemalan, Nicaraguan, and Haitian citizens were denied asylum. The harrowing message from Vice-President, Kamala Harris, “Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders,” is founded in blatant xenophobia and ethno-nationalism. These discriminatory measures convey to us that we must uphold and uplift the reproductive health needs of migrants, especially those who may be pregnant, raising children, or seeking options for termination. 

We know that reproductive justice and immigration issues are deeply intertwined, and that making these connections are vital. The answer to xenophobia and anti-immigration policies is Radical Love, self-determination, and community organizing!

Here are some ways you can take action for immigrant reproductive justice:

  • Support immigrant-led organizations and organizations that support immigrant struggles, like Project South, the National Network for Immigrant & Refugee Rights, The Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice. Donate, volunteer, and share their advocacy alerts online!
  • Demand lawmakers repeal the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal Medicaid coverage of abortion.
  • Speak out against imperialist U.S. policy, such as the 60-year-old blockade against Cuba, and current meddling in Haiti and Nicaragua, which continues to drive the “border crisis” and force countless birthing people into the U.S. reproductive nightmare. 
  • Advocate for inclusive, universal healthcare coverage, including policies that guarantee comprehensive healthcare regardless of immigration status.
  • Help provide transportation, translation, doula services, and financial assistance for immigrants seeking care, or abortion funds who need multilingual volunteers. The best way to do this is to reach out directly to organizations who are on the frontlines of this important work, including those mentioned in this post.

True reproductive justice means breaking down the barriers immigrants face when making personal medical decisions and raising families, and that means we must advocate against imperialist policies which are responsible for many of these problems domestically and internationally. This also means fighting fiercely against xenophobic, racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric, which just like anti-abortion rhetoric, is rooted in hate instead of fact. From access to abortion, to forced sterilization at immigrant detention centers, to postpartum care, we must protect the health, safety, and dignity of all forced to call this country home. Immigrant justice is reproductive justice! 

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