By Chara Fisher Jackson, Legal Director, ACLU of Georgia
Last weekend, on the day designated to celebrate the abolition of slavery, an anti-choice group decided to exploit the observance of Juneteenth to spread a demeaning and insulting message to the black community. Through billboards erected throughout the Atlanta area, the group makes the outrageous assertion that a black woman’s private health decision is more harmful than slavery. These billboards accuse black women who have made the difficult and personal decision to end a pregnancy of making slavery “seem overly generous.”
As an organization dedicated to fighting the legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism in Georgia and throughout the country, we at the ACLU of Georgia were stunned and horrified when we learned of the campaign. All women facing an unintended pregnancy — regardless of race — should have the opportunity and support they need to make the best decisions for themselves and their families, whether that is continuing the pregnancy and parenting, adoption, or abortion,
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No matter how you feel about abortion, we should all be able to agree that a black woman who has had an abortion should not be singled out and degraded like this as a means of advancing an ideological agenda. From forced sterilizations to the experiments at Tuskegee, there is a long and disgraceful history in this country of regulating and exploiting black women’s and men’s bodies and basic dignity. By suggesting that black women and families cannot be trusted, and their decisions about childbearing must be regulated and controlled for their own good, these billboards are a part of the same pattern of denigration and oppression.
This publicity stunt is distracting from the issues that truly matter. About 35 percent of black children live in poverty. That is more than double the rate for white children. The infant mortality rate for black children in Washington, D.C., for example, rivals that of some undeveloped nations. If those behind these billboards and this hateful rhetoric were truly concerned about the health and welfare of the African-American community, and the meaning of Juneteenth, they would fight to ensure that everyone has access to quality health care; to increase support for programs that build safe schools, safe communities, access to jobs, and basic necessities like food and shelter.
In Georgia, the ACLU has fought zero tolerance policies, criminalization of youth, policing of schools and school disciplinary practices that disproportionately impact our children and feed the School-to-Prison Pipeline. These policies, and others like them that push black children out of school, have to be challenged. The failure to educate black children, the increasing achievement gap, and the increasing poverty rates and isolation of black children are signs of how we value these children after they are born. It sends a message to the child and to the community, and it is devastating.
Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.
Immigration has been one of the country’s most contentious political topics and, not surprisingly, is now a primary focus of this election. But no matter how you feel about the subject, this is a nation of immigrants in search of “el sueño Americano,” as Karla Ortiz reminded us on the first night of the Democratic National Convention (DNC). Ortiz, the 11-year-old daughter of two undocumented parents, appeared in a Hillary Clinton campaign ad earlier this year expressing fear that her parents would be deported. Standing next to her mother on the DNC stage, the young girl told the crowd that she is an American who wants to become a lawyer to help families like hers.
It was a powerful way to kick-start the week, suggesting to viewers Democrats were taking a radically different approach to immigration than the Republican National Convention (RNC). While the RNC made undocumented immigrants the scapegoats for a variety of social ills, from U.S. unemployment to terrorism, the DNC chose to highlight the contributions of immigrants: the U.S. citizen daughter of undocumented parents, the undocumented college graduate, the children of immigrants who went into politics. Yet, even the stories shared at the DNC were too tidy and palatable, focusing on “acceptable” immigrant narratives. There were no mixed-status families discussing their deported parents, for example.
As far as immigration is concerned, neither the Democrats nor Republicans are without their faults, though positions taken at the conventions were clearly more extreme in one case than the other. By the end of two weeks, viewers may not have known whether to blame immigrants for taking their jobs or to befriend their hardworking immigrant neighbors. For the undocumented immigrants watching the conventions, the message, however, was clear: Both parties have a lot of work to do when it comes to humanizing their communities.
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So, it should come as no surprise that the first night of the RNC, which had the theme of “Make America Safe Again,” preyed on American fears of the “other.” In this case: undocumented immigrants who, as Julianne Hing wrote for the Nation, “aren’t just drug dealers and rapists anymore—now they’re murderers, too.”
Night one of the RNC featured not one but three speakers whose children were killed by undocumented immigrants. “They’re just three brave representatives of many thousands who have suffered so gravely,” Trump said at the convention. “Of all my travels in this country, nothing has affected me more, nothing even close I have to tell you, than the time I have spent with the mothers and fathers who have lost their children to violence spilling across our borders, which we can solve. We have to solve it.”
Billed as “immigration reform advocates,” grieving parents like Mary Ann Mendoza called her son’s killer, who had resided in the United States for 20 years before the drunk driving accident that ended her police officer son’s life, an “illegal immigrant” who “had no business being in this country.”
It seemed exploitative and felt all too common. Drunk driving deaths are tragically common and have nothing to do with immigration, but it is easier to demonize undocumented immigrants than it is to address the nation’s broken immigration system and the conditions that are separating people from their countries of origin—conditions to which the United States has contributed. Trump has spent months intentionally and disingenuously pushing narratives that undocumented immigrants are hurting and exploiting the United States, rather than attempting to get to the root of these issues. This was hammered home by Mendoza, who finished her speech saying that we have a system that cares more about “illegals” than Americans, and that a vote for Hillary “puts all of our children’s lives at risk.”
There was also Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a notorious racist whose department made a practice of racially profiling Latinos and was recently found to be in civil contempt of court for “repeatedly and knowingly” disobeying orders to cease policing tactics against Latinos, NPR reported.
Like Mendoza, Arpaio told the RNC crowd that the immigration system “puts the needs of other nations ahead of ours” and that “we are more concerned with the rights of ‘illegal aliens’ and criminals than we are with protecting our own country.” The sheriff asserted that he was at the RNC because he was distinctly qualified to discuss the “dangers of illegal immigration,” as someone who has lived on both sides of the border.
“We have terrorists coming in over our border, infiltrating our communities, and causing massive destruction and mayhem,” Arpaio said. “We have criminals penetrating our weak border security systems and committing serious crimes.”
When accepting the nomination, Trump highlighted the story of Sarah Root of Nebraska, a 21-year-old who was killed in a drunk-driving accident by a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant.
“To this administration, [the Root family’s] amazing daughter was just one more American life that wasn’t worth protecting,” Trump said. “One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”
It should be noted that the information related to immigration that Trump provided in his RNC speech, which included the assertion that the federal government enables crime by not deporting more undocumented immigrants (despite deporting more undocumented immigrants than ever before in recent years), came from groups founded by John Tanton, a well-known nativist whom the Southern Poverty Law center referred to as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.”
“The Border Crossed Us”
From the get-go, it seemed the DNC set out to counter the dangerous, anti-immigrant rhetoric pushed at the RNC. Over and over again, Democrats like Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-CA) hit back hard against Trump, citing him by name and quoting him directly.
“Donald Trump believes that Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists. But what about my parents, Donald?” Sánchez asked the crowd, standing next to her sister, Rep. Loretta Sánchez (D-CA). “They are the only parents in our nation’s 265-year history to send not one but two daughters to the United States Congress!”
Each speech from a Latino touched on immigration, glossing over the fact that immigration is not just a Latino issue. While the sentiments were positive—illustrating a community that is thriving, and providing a much-needed break from the RNC’s anti-immigrant rhetoric—at the core of every speech were messages of assimilation and respectability politics.
Even in gutsier speeches from people like actress Eva Longoria, there was the need to assert that her family is American and that her father is a veteran. The actress said, “My family never crossed a border. The border crossed us.”
Whether intentional or not, the DNC divided immigrants into those who are acceptable, respectable, and worthy of citizenship, and those—invisible at the convention—who are not. “Border crossers” who do not identify as American, who do not learn English, who do not aspire to go to college or become an entrepreneur because basic survival is overwhelming enough, what about them? Do they deserve to be in detention? Do their families deserve to be ripped apart by deportation?
At the convention, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a champion of immigration reform, said something seemingly innocuous that snapped into focus the problem with the Democrats’ immigration narrative.
“In her heart, Hillary Clinton’s dream for America is one where immigrants are allowed to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, pay their taxes, and not feel fear that their families are going to be ripped apart,” Gutiérrez said.
The Democratic Party is participating in an all-too-convenient erasure of the progress undocumented people have made through sheer force of will. Immigration has become a leading topic not because there are more people crossing the border (there aren’t) or because nativistDonald Trump decided to run for president, but because a segment of the population has been denied basic rights and has been fighting tooth and nail to save themselves, their families, and their communities.
Immigrants have been coming out of the shadows and as a result, are largely responsible for the few forms of relief undocumented communities now have, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows certain undocumented immigrants who meet specific qualifications to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. And “getting right with the law” is a joke at this point. The problem isn’t that immigrants are failing to adhere to immigration laws; the problem is immigration laws that are notoriously complicated and convoluted, and the system, which is so backlogged with cases that a judge sometimes has just seven minutes to determine an immigrant’s fate.
Becoming a U.S. citizen is also really expensive. There is a cap on how many people can immigrate from any given country in a year, and as Janell Ross explained at the Washington Post:
There are some countries, including Mexico, from where a worker with no special skills or a relative in the United States can apply and wait 23 years, according to the U.S. government’s own data. That’s right: There are people receiving visas right now in Mexico to immigrate to the United States who applied in 1993.
But getting back to Gutierrez’s quote: Undocumented immigrants do pay taxes, though their ability to contribute to our economy should not be the one point on which Democrats hang their hats in order to attract voters. And actually, undocumented people pay a lot of taxes—some $11.6 billion in state and local taxes last year, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy—while rarely benefiting from a majority of federal assistance programs since the administration of President Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996.
The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, enacted under former President Clinton, have had the combined effect of dramatically increasing the number of immigrants in detention and expandingmandatory or indefinite detention of noncitizens ordered to be removed to countries that will not accept them, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes on its site. Clinton also passed the North American Free Trade Agreement, which economically devastated Mexican farmers, leading to their mass migration to the United States in search of work.
In 1990, then-Sen. Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act, which passed in 1994 and specifically excluded undocumented women for the first 19 of the law’s 22 years, and even now is only helpful if the victim of intimate partner abuse is a child, parent, or current/former spouse of a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident.
When writing about the Democratic Party, community organizer Rosa Clemente, the 2008 Green Party vice president candidate, said that she is afraid of Trump, “but not enough to be distracted from what we must do, which is to break the two-party system for good.”
This is an election like we’ve never seen before, and it would be disingenuous to imply that the party advocating for the demise of the undocumented population is on equal footing with the party advocating for the rights of certain immigrants whose narratives it finds acceptable. But this is a country where Republicans loudly—and with no consequence—espouse racist, xenophobic, and nativist beliefs while Democrats publicly voice support of migrants while quietly standing by policies that criminalize undocumented communities and lead to record numbers of deportations.
During two weeks of conventions, both sides declared theirs was the party that encapsulated what America was supposed to be, adhering to morals and values handed down from our forefathers. But ours is a country comprised of stolen land and built by slave labor where today, undocumented immigrants, the population most affected by unjust immigration laws and violent anti-immigrant rhetoric, don’t have the right to vote. It is becoming increasingly hard to tell if that is indeed “un-American” or deeply American.
While attending UC San Diego (UCSD), Ireri Lora used her school ID at the university’s medical school to access birth control and other services.
Lora, who was undocumented then, told Rewire, “Sometimes you would see border patrol agents walking around or parked in their trucks, but they were always parked directly in front of the main hospital entrance. They would take people straight from the hospital [to a border patrol station], and they wanted us to see them do that.”
This behavior wasn’t unique to the UCSD hospital, Lora said. An acquaintance whose family members worked for border patrol in San Diego had told her that federal agents would drive around the perimeter of hospitals and park outside of them, presumably to intimidate non-citizens.
Every time Lora had to get her birth control prescription filled, she would make sure multiple people in her life knew where she was going so that if trouble arose, they would answer her call immediately.
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There are, however, California residents for whom none of this matters.
The reasons vary, but what is true across the board is that the more your identity is layered by race, gender, sexuality, and immigration status and the further your income falls below the federal poverty line, the less access you will have to sexual and reproductive health-care services—even in California. There are community-based groups working to fill this gap, but resources are in short supply for those fighting to expand access to undocumented people.
Stifled by Fear of Deportation
In August 2015, when Blanca Borrego, an undocumented mother of three, was arrested by sheriff’s deputies at her gynecologist appointment in Atascocita, Texas, some in the media rightly expressed outrage. But undocumented communities knew it wasn’t an isolated incident and that immigrants are detained and deported for seeking care all the time. Borrego was yet another example confirming some of their biggest fears.
“The fear that accessing [health] services will get you deported is very real in undocumented communities and what happened to Blanca [Borrego] isn’t at all unusual, so it’s not an unfounded fear,” said Alma Leyva, a research coordinator at the UCLA Labor Center’s Dream Resource Center, a national source for research, education, and policy on immigration issues. “She was insured and had been in the country for a long time. A lot of people think, ‘If that could happen to her, why couldn’t it happen to me?'” Leyva told Rewire.
Nearly three years ago, the Dream Resource Center sought to document the experiences of immigrant youth and their families in navigating California’s health-care system as part of its 2013 Healthy California Survey Project. From June 2013 to August 2013, a research team comprised of 37 immigrant youth surveyed 550 undocumented and “DACA-mented” young people. What resulted was Undocumented and Uninsured, the first statewide research project by and about immigrant youth on health access.
As the report explains, while Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients under the age of 21 are eligible for Medi-Cal—the state’s free or low-cost health coverage for children and adults with limited income and resources—that doesn’t resolve a primary reason undocumented people and DACA recipients do not seek care: fear.
National policies contribute to high numbers of deportations and increase immigrant communities’ mistrust, such as the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), which requires that all fingerprints of arrested persons taken by local law enforcement be sent to ICE to check against immigration databases, and Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows DHS to “deputize selected state and local law enforcement officers to perform the functions of federal immigration agents.”
According to the Undocumented and Uninsured:
The police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are not only in immigrant neighborhoods but also in the minds of undocumented people, triggering constant anticipation of harm and hypervigilant behavior. Emerging research indicates that immigrant youth experience feelings of shame, anger, despair, marginalization, and uncertainty stemming from discrimination, anti-immigrant sentiment, xenophobia, fear of deportation, and institutional barriers. Daily economic uncertainties elevate the risk of anxiety, depression, and vulnerability to mental illness for immigrant youth. Emotional traumas manifest in poor physical and mental health, which often goes untreated.
Leyva told Rewire that she has heard stories “where an undocumented youth was asked by a doctor to relay really complicated medical jargon to their mom as she was giving birth. They were so afraid they wouldn’t translate the information properly that it would be dangerous to their mom,” she said.
“There is anxiety around simple check-ups and fear around obtaining resources to get healthier. We’ve come to believe that this is just the price of being undocumented in this country, and that’s not OK. We too deserve the right to not just survive, but to live full, healthy lives. Health care is a right, not a luxury,” Leyva said.
Dire Circumstances in Rural California
Lora became a legal permanent resident in 2015, but while living in San Diego as an undocumented college student she said her “biggest fear” was a scenario like what happened to Borrego in Texas. In 2009, while working on college campuses and connecting with undocumented families, Lora learned that it was a universal fear among undocumented women.
“When I asked the moms [I worked with] if any of them, about 20 in all, had visited any particular clinics, they all shared that they were scared to because they heard border patrol patrolled the area or that vans waited outside to get people who were leaving the clinic, especially if the clinic was one that primarily served the Latino community. Fortunately, none of the mothers I ever worked with had been stopped by border patrol for seeking services, but that environment made them too scared to go to a clinic,” Lora said.
By that time, she and a friend had started a program where they brought different workshops onto campus based on the expressed needs of the community. Overwhelmingly, Lora said, undocumented mothers requested workshops about sexual education and birth control.
Lora worked with local community clinics from the Barrio Logan area of San Diego to do biweekly workshops in Spanish about sexual health. That experience led her to ACCESS, an Oakland-based organization “founded in 1993 by clinic escorts who were moved to action after witnessing the many barriers women were facing—especially young or poor women—to actually obtain an abortion.” ACCESS further explains on its website that the organization combines direct services, community education, and policy advocacy to promote reproductive options and access to quality health care for California women. It is one of the only organizations in California that helps to provide abortion access to undocumented women while also using a reproductive justice framework created by women of color for women of color.
Lora, who is now on ACCESS’ board of directors, began working with the organization as a healthline intern. The healthline, as Lora explained, empowers callers by giving them all of the information they need to advocate for themselves. It was at this time Lora learned of the very specific barriers undocumented women living in rural areas face.
“They always voiced fears about visiting any government agency to get Medi-Cal or a clinic like Planned Parenthood because they thought they’d be deported or profiled for showing a foreign ID,” Lora said.
Vanessa Gonzalez-Plumhoff, Planned Parenthood’s director of Latino outreach and engagement, made it clear that the health-care provider would not put a patient in harm’s way. She told Rewire that Planned Parenthood is serious about addressing the needs of the undocumented community, asserting that Planned Parenthood will provide health care no matter what, regardless of immigration, citizenship, or income status.
The reason why the services provided to undocumented women may differ by location, Gonzalez-Plumhoff said, is because of the legislative, political, and financial climate of a particular area. As reproductive health care continues to be attacked, it limits what services are made available from clinic to clinic.
Unlike most states, California allows low-income women to obtain public funds for abortion and also provides them with co-pay-free family planning services. Abortions are legal up to viability and California’s AB 154, which took effect in January 2014, increased the number of abortion providers in the state. The law authorized nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives, and physician assistants to perform vacuum aspiration abortion, which previously only doctors were allowed to do.
But, like in most states, there are districts in California where abortion providers are nonexistent. According to the LA Times, UC San Francisco’s Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health is largely responsible for the passage of AB 154, but just a handful of the clinicians trained under the six-year study are practicing in remote corners of California. Schools like the UC San Francisco School of Nursing are developing new training programs, but at this point, half of California’s 58 counties currently have no readily available provider. And even when new programs roll out in rural communities, they will only benefit women seeking abortions during the first trimester, leaving out a segment of the population at risk of fetal anomalies or later pregnancy complications.
The process of obtaining an abortion as an undocumented woman living in a rural area is complicated. Lora said these women often work in the fields and live in migrant camps, which makes obtaining the passport that some clinics require as a valid form of ID challenging—and that’s mostly because of the lack of transportation, which Lora said is a “huge barrier” for undocumented women seeking such identification.
In addition, these women often have to travel to reach one of the few clinics providing later abortion care in the state.
“A lot of clinics near women in rural areas only offer abortion until the first trimester,” Lora said. “By the time they’re referred to us, they’re often beyond that point, so they have to get transferred to a clinic that’s even farther away. Transportation comes up again and again.”
This is where ACCESS’ “practical support program” comes in. The organization helps callers navigate paying for care, leveraging over $200,000 of coverage per year for medical procedures. Also, with support from its network of volunteers around the state and the organization’s pool of funds, ACCESS provides around $25,000 annually to help with transportation, housing, meals, child care, medical costs, and doula support.
One of the toughest cases Lora ever handled on the Spanish healthline was an undocumented rape survivor who lived in a rural area. Her family didn’t know of the rape or the resulting pregnancy. By the time ACCESS could walk her through all of the steps, she was in her 20th week. Following the multi-week process, which included acquiring an appointment and bus tickets, she then had to come up with a lie to tell her family as to where she was going for two days.
“The information is not accessible and the barriers can seem endless. That’s why it’s especially upsetting to me when ACCESS constantly hears this misconception that people in California—and women of color in particular—purposefully wait until the last minute to get abortions. It’s simply not true. Most of the women I’ve spoken to were very clear that they wanted to terminate their pregnancies early on, but they were forced to wait weeks because of limited access to information, limited access to clinics, and because of transportation barriers and language barriers,” Lora said. “If abortion was as accessible in California as they paint it to be, all women who wanted to terminate their pregnancies would be able to do it in a week.”
Community Groups Are Working to Replace Fear With Trust
There is no telling how many women ACCESS has helped, but what is clear is the ripple effect of the progress the group is making. ACCESS alumna La Loba Loca, who identifies herself as a queer, machona, brown South American migrant, formed Autonomous Communities for Reproductive and Abortion Support (ACRAS) three years ago. La Loba Loca’s collective, comprised of mostly queer people of color, provides free and low-cost abortion support to Angelenos. Her personal project, Serpiente Birth & Spectrum Services, supports individuals and families during life transitions through bilingual full-spectrum companionship and doula work.
La Loba Loca takes a multifaceted approach to her companion work, coupling an academic framework with traditional knowledge gained through personal research and non-Western education, which she calls “abuelita knowledge.”
“I got into birth work because of abortion. To me, there’s no place people can go that will holistically support them getting an abortion,” La Loba Loca said. “I want to normalize abortion as just another aspect of reproductive health and remind people of the ways our grandmothers took care of their health and well-being outside of the medical industrial complex. It’s medicine and knowledge that is generational and that shouldn’t be lost.”
Above all else, ACRAS works to share knowledge and resources within communities. La Loba Loca has tirelessly compiled documents about abortion and reproductive health for the purpose of being used by undocumented people who don’t have easy access to clinics and hospitals. “The idea was also to include people in the collective who have historically been left out of these conversations or who have been denied the same kind of access to reproductive justice as other people,” she said.
La Loba Loca has been a major proponent of queer and trans people of color receiving the proper training to be both birth and abortion companions. The language used around reproductive justice isn’t inclusive, she said, and it can make queer and trans people of color afraid to discuss their bodies and their needs and afraid to access services.
“I’m hearing a lot of queer and trans people try to figure that out, just because accessing abortion as a queer or trans person can be difficult or when you do obtain one, it can be dehumanizing,” she said. “Right now, there are queer and trans people doing reproductive justice work, but it’s very isolating and frustrating to never receive the funding that’s needed to provide education for and about different bodies.”
To La Loba Loca, the answer to the lack of access and the poor treatment that undocumented people and other low-income communities of color often receive at clinics and hospitals is not working to change these systems, but rather using community-based resources to find ways around the structural hurdles. Roxana, an ACRAS member who requested that Rewire not use her last name, said that the road to sexual and reproductive justice has been built on the backs of women of color and the long history of institutions being harmful to communities of color who are already vulnerable is not something that can easily be overcome.
“I think of the Latinas in L.A. who were coerced into sterilization in the 1970s and how that distrust lingers in the community,” Roxana said. “The trauma stays, and it continues to be a barrier that scares people from going to an institution that historically been violent to people who look like them. It’s only harder when you’re undocumented.”
Like Lora, Roxana realized through her work that immigrant communities, Latino communities, and undocumented communities are all in need of sexual and reproductive health information that is in their language and that comes from people they trust.
At an ACRAS workshop around reproductive justice, according to Roxana, the age of attendees ranged from 15 to 65. A woman specifically asked if it was OK that her teenage daughter was there because she wanted her to have the information that she never did. ACRAS workshops bring a LGBTQ lens and the mother and her daughter were eager to learn about reproductive health for different communities and learn about gender and sexual identities that go beyond the binary. Roxana said the interest is there; it’s just a matter of providing it in a way that’s accessible.
“We’re having real conversations about real experiences and for me, as a person who does this work, it’s very political and very personally meaningful. It’s heart work; it comes from the heart,” Roxana said, growing emotional. “I want to go beyond ‘your body, your choice.’ I’m not really into that, especially because for a lot of us, what happens to our bodies isn’t a choice. For me, it’s more like ‘I got your back.’ ACCESS and collectives like ACRAS serve a very important purpose in our communities. We’re creating alternatives to a system that wasn’t meant for us and we’re providing access to people whose existence was never even considered. We have each other’s backs.”
CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify ACCESS’ funding for “practical support.”