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Latinas in Action

Linking Access to Reproductive Health Care and the Need for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

SOURCE: Flickr/Christiana Care

A workshop teaches Latinas crucial health care information that they can share to help other women in their community understand the options available to them when they need care.

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At first look, there is no obvious connection between immigration reform and reproductive health access. That is, until you break down some of the effects of the lack of immigration reform in the United States. For example, migrant workers who live and work in rural areas of our country not only face mistreatment and exploitation by employers, but also often lack access to quality health care and education, including comprehensive sexuality education.

Anti-immigrant policies severely limit access to basic reproductive health care for many Latinas. For example, under current law low-income immigrant women who have been in the United States for less than five years are denied federal Medicaid coverage for essential reproductive health services, such as prenatal care—regardless of their legal status. Coverage is only available for emergency services, such as labor and delivery during that time.

Latinas have the highest rate of uninsurance; and uninsurance rates are staggeringly high among migrant workers. The inability to access preventive health care, coupled with a lack of education, contributes to increased rates of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections among migrant workers. In addition, many families fear going to doctors or even visiting their children’s schools because of their real or perceived immigration status. Thus, in the event of an unintended pregnancy, on top of facing one of the most difficult decisions of their lives, these women also risk of their citizenship status being challenged when seeking abortion care.

The second annual Latina Week of Action, which wrapped up two weeks ago, sought to bring the plight of immigrant women into the larger discussion about reproductive rights. This year’s theme “Caminamos: Justice for Immigrant Women,” encouraged discussion on the intersection of immigration reform and access to reproductive health among traditional reproductive rights and other social justice organizations. It also served as an entry point for Latinas who would otherwise not know about the reproductive justice movement.

Our young Latinas grow up with mixed signals, told to value purity while being bombarded with pop culture that tells them to flaunt their “exotic” sexuality. They also are stigmatized for their assumed sexuality.

And Latina immigrants face additional challenges. Those who work in unregulated environments are easily exploited by employers and are vulnerable to sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination. But these employers often go unpunished because undocumented workers, and even workers with temporary visas, fear that reporting such actions will jeopardize their status. And when immigrant women are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, many experience inhumane treatment in detention centers where their civil liberties are often violated and they face the threat of being deported and having their families torn apart.

In the reproductive justice movement, there is an innate cross-section between identity politics such as race, citizenship, class, sexual orientation, and education. Working within a reproductive justice framework, as opposed to a traditional reproductive rights framework, challenges organizations and individuals to think more broadly about the obstacles and barriers, as well as the inhibitors and enablers to reproductive health and freedom. Despite statements by outspoken political figures applauding the eradication of racism and sexism in America today, we are currently witnessing increasing attacks on women’s sovereignty over their own bodies.

We are seeing these attacks happening systematically and overtly in a variety of ways, including:

  • State and national anti-abortion proposals
  • Bold and offensive acts by conservative advocates who place racist antichoice billboards in communities of color saying that abortion is genocide
  • Continued marginalization and exploitation of some of the most vulnerable of workforces including those in the domestic-work and sex-work industries
  • An extreme decrease in funding support for services to serve low-income populations

To ensure that all women have access to reproductive health care, the reproductive justice movement looks at a problem through multiple lenses. For example, ensuring that schools provide comprehensive sex education can give young women the information they need to make informed choices about their reproductive health. Making family planning services and contraceptives affordable allows women with low income to have control over their fertility. And passing comprehensive immigration reform would eliminate many of the challenges immigrant families face on a daily basis, and would also decrease the fear many immigrants have about accessing reproductive health services.

Through grassroots efforts, social media, coalition building, and education and outreach campaigns, organizations such as the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, or NLIRH, California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, or CLRJ, and the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity for Reproductive Rights , or COLOR, are working to challenge regressive policies and demonstrate what the reproductive justice movement looks like in action.

This year’s Latina Week of Action, spearheaded by the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, helped open the door for advocacy and education on issues that are outside of the “traditional” reproductive rights movement. Through social media efforts, including Facebook, Twitter, and blogging carnivals, organizations across the country shared experiences. And through trainings and community meetings, groups participating in this year’s advocacy week have been able to spread the word and generate support for comprehensive immigration reform.

The event was also a catalyst to encourage mainstream organizations to explore the intersection of reproductive health and immigrant rights. For instance, when first approached to join the Latina Week of Action, NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado asked COLOR: “How is this related to reproductive rights?” These questions are common. For us, these connections are often very clear, but these conversations among advocates are useful for exploring what is at the core of an organization’s mission. NARAL Pro Choice Colorado asked for support and training to begin thinking about what reproductive justice means to their organization. Latina Week of Action served as the vehicle to begin this work.

Looking at our accomplishments from the first two years, the Latina Week of Action has brought much-needed attention to the intersections of immigration reform and reproductive rights, health, and justice. For next year’s Week of Action, we hope to get even more organizations involved – to further explore how many of our social justice issues are truly interrelated and how successes in the immigrant justice community, the economic justice community, and the environmental justice community, are victories for us ALL.

Lorena Garcia is the executive director of Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights and a member of the Center for American Progress’s Women’s Health Leadership Network. For more information and action steps, visit http://colorlatina.org/.

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To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education, poverty)
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Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
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Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues, Legal Progress, Half in Ten Education Fund)
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Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
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