The Third Rail: Reproductive Health Needs of Immigrant Women

Aishia Glasford

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.

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.

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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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