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.

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