Commentary Race

What’s the Real Problem? Xenophobia Keying Attacks on Immigrant Women


Immigrant women in the U.S. face systematic xenophobia non-stop, around-the-clock.

This is part of the Latina Week of Action 2011 blog conversation debating the real problem concerning the scapegoating of immigrant women.

Xenophobia: An unreasonable fear, distrust, or hatred of strangers, foreigners, or anything perceived as foreign or different.

According to this definition of xenophobia, immigrant women in the U.S. are facing it non-stop, around-the-clock.  And it’s not just because they’re immigrants, it’s because immigrant women have multiple identities which have already been perceived  individually by our patriarchal, white, straight, middle class society as different, code for “no value/undesirable.”  Unfortunately, the otherization of immigrant women not only takes place in pop culture, like we’ve seen with racist Halloween costumes, it also takes place in the political sphere. Remember Rep. Louie Gohmert and so-called “terrorist babies”?  This xenophobic rhetoric influences policy.

As we mentioned have before, the “anchor baby” rhetoric has surrounded immigration policy, particularly birthright citizenship and enforcement.  The anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, legitimizes “anchor baby” by actually defining it and then uses it to support “clarifying the meaning of the 14th Amendment.” Earlier this year, State Legislators for Legal Information announced their campaign to introduce a model for state compacts that would create two types of birth certificates depending on the parents’ status in this country and a bill that “narrowly interprets the 14th Amendment.”  Not only is this inefficient and complicates an already complicated broken immigration system, but it further perpetuates a caste system that allows immigrants, particularly immigrant women to be treated as less than. Rep. Lamar Smith’s arsenal of xenophobic legislation, “Keep Our Communities Safe Act” and the “HALT Act,” are two more measure that would prohibit President Obama from granting some relief from deportation, and continue the attacks on immigrant communities.

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The xenophobic rhetoric around birthright citizenship has influenced other national policy discussions. We have the ongoing debate about Medicaid cuts which would further block or eliminate health care access to poor communities of color.  For instance, FAIR believes that immigrants are “swelling” public assistance programs in general. To reality, programs like Medicaid require that legal permanent residents have this status for five years and to produce proof of their resident status to qualify and those who do not have legal documentation aren’t even eligible.  Most public benefits programs have the five year residency requirement, excluding a wide range of immigrants, a number who are paying taxes to support these programs but can’t receive the benefits.

Fortunately, here in the United States multiple organizations have actively called out policymakers on their attacks on immigrant women.  As part of the National Coalition for Immigrant Women’s Rights, NLIRH and others actively advocate for the human rights of immigrant women.  In the upcoming fall, we will release a survey document that analyzes how various immigration policies impact women and will announce our one year campaign to dismantle S-Comm.  In the meantime, go to our website to learn more and advocate for immigrant women!

By Candace Gibson, Legal Intern at NLIRH

Commentary Human Rights

Blanca Borrego and the Reproductive Oppression of Immigrant Women

Ana R. DeFrates

The Texas Latina's arrest, which took place in the middle of a doctor's visit, is about so much more than immigration policy.

By now, some of you have heard about Blanca Borrego, the Texas Latina who, while at an appointment with her gynecologist, was arrested for allegedly providing a false ID document and taken away in handcuffs.

The exact details are still emerging, but so far we know that Borrego went to Northeast Women’s Healthcare clinic in Atascocita, Texas, for follow-up care with her gynecologist for a cyst that had been diagnosed the year before. Borrego had been sitting in the waiting room for nearly two hours when staff called her into an exam room, where she was met by Harris County Sheriff’s deputies.

Since news of her arrest reached local Texas and then national outlets, several immigrants’ advocacy organizations have weighed in, decrying her arrest as evidence of immigration enforcement run amok and deeply flawed policies that make it nearly impossible for undocumented people to live and work with dignity.

They’re right, of course. But it’s not the whole story. Advocates have long warned against the dangers of local and state law enforcement collaborating with immigration officials, even as state legislatures have proliferated policies like Arizona’s SB 1070 that mandate the practice. This collaboration creates a climate of fear and mistrust that places women, children, and LGBTQ people at particular risk for harm—whether by overzealous police, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, or those who would exploit the fear that often deters immigrants who’ve experienced crime from reporting.

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Borrego’s story also illustrates the desperate need for relief for millions of undocumented people in the United States living with the daily fear of detention and deportation. Immigrant women like Borrego are the backbones of their communities: caring for their families, contributing to the U.S. economy, supporting their friends and neighbors, and serving their communities.

In fact, Borrego would have qualified for President Obama’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) administrative reform program, which was announced last year. For the estimated 4.1 million undocumented individuals like Borrego—who have been in the United States since January 1, 2001 and have a son or daughter who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident—DAPA allows work permit applications and protection from deportation. Unfortunately, her home state of Texas is leading a malicious lawsuit against the program, which has been prevented from going into effect while the case winds through the courts. Already, two of her children have enrolled in the president’s administrative relief for DREAMers. Yet, even fully implemented, these programs are temporary, and millions of families still await action from Congress to pass humane immigration reform.

This story is about so much more than immigration policy.

Blanca Borrego’s arrest—which took place in the middle of a visit to her doctor—is a violation of her human right to health care and her basic dignity as a person. A reproductive justice framework, analyzing the multiple, intersecting systems that conspired to facilitate her arrest, reveals this incident to be a case study in how reproductive oppression is used to deny immigrant women their basic rights, with much broader implications for Latin@s, immigrants, and border communities across the nation.

That Borrego was arrested in a gynecologist’s office in Texas is particularly poignant, as the state has become ground zero in the fight for reproductive autonomy for women in general and Latinas in particular. Given the barriers Texas has created to accessing reproductive health care, that she was able to make it to a doctor in the first place is nothing short of a miracle. The sad fact is that many Texas Latinas never make it that far.

Since 2012, Texas has been in the grips of a human rights crisis centered on the reproductive health of Latinas. This crisis was created by the defunding and dismantling of the state family planning program by anti-choice politicians, which led to statewide clinic closures and left many with no affordable, accessible health-care provider whatsoever.

I’ve spoken to women who’ve lived for years with lumps in their breasts, suspecting cancer, with nowhere to go for a mammogram. I’ve talked to women who ration, share, or even completely forgo birth control pills that they would like to be using reliably to prevent pregnancy. Other women live with daily pains that make it hard to work, care for children, and go to school. This human rights crisis has been extensively documented by the Nuestro Texas campaign, a partnership between the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Beyond these stories, statistics show that despite the sympathetic support of a few Texas lawmakers, this problem is getting worse: Nearly 40 percent of Texas women are Latina, and Latinas are among the most likely to suffer and die from cervical and breast cancer. In 2013, the Texas legislature passed HB 2, a law designed to shut down abortion clinics that decimated what women’s health infrastructure had survived the earlier defunding. During its most recent session earlier this year, Texas lawmakers passed legislation that requires women seeking abortion to present certain kinds of identification—identification that, unsurprisingly, many immigrant women do not have.

This is the context in which Blanca Borrego was arrested—one where funding cuts, clinic closures, and other restrictions have made Texas a reproductive health-care desert for many of the state’s immigrant, Latina, and low-income women. Yet in her case, overcoming all those barriers wasn’t enough.

Even the manner of her arrest speaks to the heavily gendered ways police and immigration policy strip women of their human dignity. Waiting rooms are often scary and vulnerable places, and we can speculate that Borrego may have been anxious about this follow-up visit. After being made to wait for hours (presumably while the staff called the police and waited for them to arrive) she was deceptively called into the exam room, where instead of a caring physician she found officers waiting with handcuffs. She was paraded through the waiting room, where officers reportedly told her daughters that she would be deported. Everything about the arrest served to publicly humiliate Borrego and instill fear in her daughters and anyone else who might be watching.

Cisgender women, trans men, and nonbinary people who can become pregnant are among the most likely to seek reproductive health care, whether for contraception, abortion, breast and cervical cancer screenings, or treatment for pain, cysts, or countless other acute and chronic conditions. For many people, a gynecologist is the only health provider they ever see, making reproductive health providers critical in screening for intimate partner violence, mental health, and other issues that could otherwise be overlooked. That law enforcement and/or immigration officials would collude specifically with this kind of health provider must be seen through a lens of gender and reproductive justice. The intimacy of the violation is profoundly disturbing.

The harms of Borrego’s arrest are clear and far-reaching. While in jail, she was separated from her children and without the ability to work to support them. She now faces possible incarceration and/or detention in a jail-like immigrant detention facility. She obviously didn’t get the medical appointment she originally went to the clinic for, and is unlikely to receive any reproductive (or other) health care if further imprisoned. Instead, she faces the horrors and human rights violations that have been well documented in the U.S. prison and immigrant detention system. If deported, she would be ripped from her family and her home of more than a decade.

But the harm doesn’t end there. As this story continues to spread, so too will one of the most noxious byproducts of anti-immigrant policies and practices: fear. Women like Borrego, perhaps living with pain, facing an unintended pregnancy, or suspecting cancer, will think twice before going to the doctor. Somewhere in Texas or even across the country, a woman will wonder whether police or ICE will be waiting in her doctor’s office. A woman will cancel her appointment, drive past the clinic, never get off the bus. Some of those women might survive without care, as some already do. But for others, the pain will worsen, the pregnancy will go without care, the cancer will spread. And what robs health, dignity, and autonomy from all, will, from some, take even their lives.

News Law and Policy

Women’s, Health Care Groups Applaud Supreme Court Decision on ACA, While Bishops Continue Their Attacks

Jodi Jacobson

Reaction by women's groups and promoters of health reform to this morning's Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act (ACA( was swift and laudatory, though numerous leaders also pointed the gaps that remain to be filled. 

Reaction by women’s groups and promoters of health reform to this morning’s Supreme Court decision upholding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was swift and laudatory, though numerous leaders also pointed the gaps that remain to be filled. 

In a statement, Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities said:

Today’s Supreme Court decision allows the nation to reap the very substantial benefits of the Affordable Care Act:  health insurance coverage for millions of uninsured Americans, important consumer protections for millions of insured Americans whose coverage has serious gaps, and the promise of progress in slowing the growth of health care costs.

Still, Greenstein noted, “for both states and the federal government, much work lies ahead to establish health insurance exchanges, set up enrollment processes that work smoothly both for the exchanges and Medicaid, and complete other critical tasks by the 2014 deadline. The timeframe is short, particularly in states that have made little progress since the law’s passage.”

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Women’s groups were particularly relieved at the positive outcome of the SCOTUS decision, because, on the whole, the ACA has been considered a huge advancement in coverage of preventive and other forms of care often out of reach of women, who make less than men overall throughout their lives, and who, as they enter retirement, are more likely to be poor.

The decision will have a “profound and concrete impact” on millions of people’s lives, Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) said today in a statement. Calling the Affordable Care Act “the greatest advance in women’s health in a generation,” PPFA said the law will:

“provide access to birth control and cancer screenings without co-pays, guaranteed direct access to OB/GYN providers without referrals, and an end to discriminatory practices against women, such as charging women higher premiums and denying coverage for “pre-existing conditions.”

In addition, noted the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) millions of women and their families can rest assured they will no longer be denied health coverage for having survived domestic violence or rape, or having had a Caesarean section, that maternity care will be included in all health care plans, and that tens of millions of women will gain financial access to coverage, whether through Medicaid or through help with insurance premiums.

Key benefits of the law that have already been realized, according to PPFA, include the following: 

  • More than 45 million women have already received coverage for preventive health screenings at no cost since August 2010  – including mammograms and Pap tests – and millions more will be able to get free screenings in the coming years.
  • More than 3 million young adults have been able to stay on their parents’ insurance plan under the ACA to date, and in the next year, millions more who would have otherwise lost coverage will continue to be insured under their parents’ plan.
  • Women are guaranteed direct access to OB/GYN providers without a referral, as a result of the Affordable Care Act.
  • Starting in August, birth control will be treated like any other preventive prescription under the Affordable Care Act, and will be available without co-pays or deductibles.

As a result of the Affordable Care Act, notes PPFA, 17 million women will become newly insured.

Health care providers that focus on family planning increasingly contract with private insurance companies. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 33 percent of all family planning providers now contract with private insurers – and 49 percent of Planned Parenthood health centers have contracts with private insurance companies.

With this decision, “we are closer than ever to realizing the promise of health care for all,” said Cecile Richards, president of PPFA. 

The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) likewise applauded the decision as “a significant victory for Latinas, who are more likely than other groups to face structural barriers that prevent them from accessing health care and preventive services.”

“Latinas have historically faced a disproportionate number of barriers to basic health care, and we can now envision a future where those barriers begin to crumble,” said NLIRH executive director Jessica González-Rojas. “Everyone has a fundamental right to quality, affordable health care. Today’s Supreme Court decision is an important step toward making that right a reality.”

Gonzales noted that, since it took effect, the ACA has already helped more than 736,000 young Latino/as retain health care coverage under their parents’ plans until they reach the age of 26, and has eliminated discrimination by health insurers against children with pre-existing conditions. In the coming months and years, she continued:

“ACA provisions will expand access to life-saving cervical cancer screenings and other preventive health services, increase support for community health centers and increase Medicaid coverage. Beginning in August, the ACA also provides access to contraception without expensive co-pays, ensuring that every woman can plan the timing and spacing of her children.”

“The Affordable Care Act is a breakthrough in access to health care for Latinas,” said González-Rojas. “Today’s Supreme Court decision ensures that Latinas can make the healthiest decisions for themselves and their families.”

But, while the gains achieved in the ACA are a step in the right direction, Gonzales notes, much work remains to be done.

The law leaves many immigrants without access to essential care. In addition, opponents of expanded health care access continue to launch attacks on numerous benefits included in the law, particularly on the provision for contraception without co-pays. The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health will continue to advocate for solutions that close these gaps in health care.

However, at least one group, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, made clear it would continue to fight to prevent women from accessing affordable reproductive health care under the ACA, using the same specious arguments it has made all along.

In short, today’s decision was a huge step forward, but in reality just that… a step forward in an ongoing effort toward ensuring access to affordable health care for all.


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