Immigration Is a Reproductive Justice Issue

Images of infants ripped from their parents’ arms, and cries from children kept in cages have come to define the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. After receiving national pressure and a court order requiring them to reunite the families it has torn apart, the Trump administration failed to meet last week’s deadline to do so. As evidence is now coming to light that the Trump administration was warned that its policy would cause irreversible psychological harm to the children it would impact, the fact that they did it anyway reflects administration’s complete disregard for human rights. Moreover, it shines a spotlight on immigration as a reproductive justice issue.

Reproductive justice not only includes the rights of people to choose whether and when to have children, and to have access to the services needed to support that choice; it also includes the ability to parent children with dignity, in safe communities. The zero-tolerance immigration policy violates these rights on multiple levels.

This policy, which criminalizes people who reach a US port of entry without proper documentation—even if they are seeking asylum—coupled with an announcement that gang and domestic-violence will no longer be considered grounds for asylum, is a fundamental abuse of human rights. By criminalizing immigrants and asylum seekers the administration has taken away their right to due process, as granted by the Fifth Amendment and international law. Instead of undergoing a fair trial and having the right to make their case, immigrants—many of them parents—are being sent to jail. While President Trump claims his executive order now stops children from being separated from their parents, the order does not address nor eliminate the human rights and reproductive justice violations that continue to be committed on families.

Currently, the children of more than 900 parents have not been reunited, either because parents renounced immediate reunification (many under duress or without being informed that they were doing so), failed to pass a background check, or have already been deported. The administration remains unsure if these children will ever be reunited with their parents. For those who have been reunited, the trauma, pain, and negligence inflicted by the child detention centers continue to haunt them. What are meant to be joyful reunions have become confusing and stressful situations for both children and parents. Children have cried for their social workers, unable to recognize their parents who have longed to embrace them after months of being separated. Medical professionals have been vocal, calling the policy “government-sanctioned child abuse” that will have serious long-term physical and mental-health consequences.

Many of those affected by this policy are women and girls fleeing gang and domestic-violence in the northern triangle of Central America—specifically, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These three countries have deeply entrenched social norms that contribute to some of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world, ranking them among the most unsafe places to be a woman. By removing their children and ending recognition of domestic and gang-related violence as grounds for seeking asylum, the US, which has long been a safe haven for these women and their children, is now further undermining their autonomy and dignity.

Further, the policy runs counter to the Protocol Relating to Status of Refugees, a treaty that defines who is a refugee, and prohibits nations from punishing refugees. The US and 145 nations ratified the protocol at the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1968. Under this treaty, the administration’s actions are clearly illegal.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who was awarded International Women’s Health Coalition’s (IWHC) Visionary Leadership Award at the 2018 Annual Dinner, spoke against President Trump’s anti-immigration policies: “People do not lose their human rights by virtue of crossing a border without a visa.”

The separation of families is just one way the administration’s policies have undermined reproductive justice for immigrant families. In March, the administration changed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy, removing the exemption for the detention of pregnant women—between mid-December 2017 and early April 2018, 590 pregnant women were detained. Those who make the arduous trip pregnant often face high-risk pregnancies as a result, but instead of offering medical care, US authorities detain and frequently shackle these women around their stomachs. A number of these women experienced miscarriages while in ICE custody and have been denied necessary reproductive care before, during, and after the miscarriage occurred.

ICE is but one part of the government’s coordinated attack on immigrants’ reproductive rights. Under Scott Lloyd, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), adolescent girls in the custody of the ORR have repeatedly been refused access to safe and compassionate abortion care. Obstruction and delays, which have been sought on ideological grounds—and supported by the likes of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh—gamble with girls’ lives. This was the case with the 17-year-old known as Jane Doe. Though she was able to get an abortion after weeks of legal battles, the obstructionist tactics demonstrate that Lloyd and his office remain determined to restrict access to reproductive health services.

Undocumented immigrant women and adolescent girls must overcome many obstacles due to their intersecting identities, including, xenophobia, sexism, and discrimination from the health care system due to their status. Harsh anti-immigrant policies, like under the Trump administration, make it even harder for immigrant women to access basic sexual and reproductive health care. As demonstrated by the case of Blanca Borrego, who was detained while visiting her OB-GYN, medical facilities are not safe spaces for immigrant women and girls. The criminalization of immigrants only discourages immigrant communities from seeking medical services in fear of being deported. This leaves women and girls unable to make informed decisions about their health and lives.

The Trump administration’s ongoing zero-tolerance immigration policies clearly has severe implications for reproductive justice, separating families and removing the right to choice in decisions that impact women and girls’ health and lives. While the administration has made it clear that they will not foster efforts that promote the human rights of women, girls, or families, the International Women’s Health Coalition will continue to advocate for the right of all people—regardless of national origin—to make informed decisions over their lives and to access quality and affordable sexual and reproductive health care, including abortion and contraception.

Photo: US Customs and Border Protection

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