IMMIGRANT RIGHTS Are Women’s Rights

IMMIGRANT RIGHTS Are Women’s Rights

Hooton, Angela

Throughout the spring and summer of 2006, immigrants around the country marched for the same basic rights marginalized groups have been fighting for throughout history – the right to live with dignity and justice. In cities around the country, people of all ages, ethnicities and languages stood in solidarity against the growing tide of anti-immigrant sentiment and policy in this country. The demonstrations, which were inspirational to participants and observers alike, provided invaluable momentum and strength to the immigrant rights movement, and its effects were felt in the halls of Congress.

Not surprisingly, the response from the anti-immigrant camp was swift and sharp. Many individuals, even some well-meaning ones, began to voice opinions about the “immigration problem.” They articulated a litany of concerns about immigrants and their place in society. Many people were asking, “Why can’t people just learn English if they are going to live here?” Others promulgated stereotypes that immigrants are violent, threaten our security and take away blue-collar jobs from American citizens.

Conservative pundits who have made immigration policy a cornerstone of their right-wing platform contributed to these prejudices and fears on their talk shows and blogs. They talked about “anchor babies” and “the demise of the American culture.” They threatened that the United States will be swallowed up by Mexico and that we are rapidly becoming a “nation of tacos and salsa.” They questioned why people living in America dare to speak another language or hold up their native-country flags. Anti-immigrant zealots even blamed immigrants for the deeply entrenched problems associated with financing our public health and education systems. The rhetoric was more than reminiscent of the xenophobic tone that pervaded American immigration politics at the end of the 19th century. And despite strong counter-arguments to then¬∑ positions (i.e. how many United States citizens speak more than one language? How many are willing to work for little pay under dangerous conditions? How many millions of citizens are uninsured?), these views continue to reverberate in living rooms around the United States.

What is even more disconcerting than the rhetoric used by conservative policy-makers and spokespersons in the immigration debate is the near-silence from the women’s rights movement. Where is the outrage from feminist organizations about the conservative movement’s efforts to deny the basic rights and equal status of immigrants in our country – a conservative crusade against which feminists have been fighting on behalf of women for over 40 years? Why do feminists understand the connection to other social justice movements, such as the civil rights and LGBTQ movements, and not the immigrant rights movement?

Unquestionably, the lives of women – immigrant women – are at stake when policy-makers propose building national fences, criminalizing undocumented immigrants and denying medical assistance and educational opportunities to those without “legal” status. Women and their children, who constitute an increasing percentage of the immigrant population, are often struggling to survive. Many of them live in the shadows of our society, with few opportunities for education or advancement. Female immigrants overwhelmingly have limited formal education and work in underpaid and undervalued industries, such as domestic work. On meager incomes, without any benefits, they must support their children in the United States and family back in their home countries.

Immigrant women are also deeply affected by the restrictions on public safety-net programs, such as health care coverage. Although the majority of immigrants do not rely on cash assistance, many anti-immigrant advocates focus on the use of public benefits by immigrants to stir up resentment. The truth is that since 1996, it has been very difficult for immigrants to access essential safety net programs. Immigrants are excluded from federal Medicaid funding for their first five years of residency in the United States. After five years, they are subject to deeming and sponsorship requirements, which can effectively disqualify immigrants from eligibility. Even immigrants who are victims of domestic violence are denied health care coverage. Consequently, because of our broken health care system, immigrants, like millions of uninsured citizens, rely on emergency rooms for routine care. Immigrants, however, make up only a small percentage of emergency room cases, because they may fear the potential of being deported – the result is that many will forgo care completely. The legislation passed in the [then Republican dominated] House of Representatives would have criminalized even those who provide assistance, such as medical care, to undocumented immigrants.

For pregnant immigrant women, accessing prenatal care is an unbelievable challenge. Many do not work in jobs that offer health care coverage, and they are not able to access Medicaid in a majority of the states. They must rely on underfunded public clinics and hospitals for their care. There is no question that policy-makers place little value on the health of the expectant mothers, outside of their role as incubator for a citizen child. Anti-choice policy-makers have promulgated a regulation that would allow health care coverage through the State Children’s Health Insurance Program by redefining fetus to include “unborn children.” The effect of this policy, which was aimed at establishing fetal personhood in order to erode the premise of Roe v. Wade, is that mothers are denied health care coverage because of their immigration status, but their fetuses have certain privileges based on their future citizenship! The “support” for immigrant women’s fetuses dissipates quickly, however, because once the children are bom they become part of the “immigration problem.” In fact, the same policy-makers that support fetal health care coverage criticize female immigrants for jumping the border to have “anchor babies” or for over-populating the United States with non- Anglo children.

Prenatal care is just one reproductive health disparity. We also know that Latina immigrants are less likely to access contraceptives, abortions, HIV treatment and sex education. A recent study found that low-income Latina immigrants displayed significantly less knowledge regarding cervical cancer and were less likely to receive a pap smear than low-income non-Latinas.1 There is growing documentation that Latina immigrants are self-aborting and they are using a variety of methods to do so. A recent example of the devastating consequences limited access can have on Latina immigrants is the case of the migrant farm worker in South Carolina who was put in jail for taking Misoprostal (a medication that is used to treat ulcers) to self-induce an abortion. In South Carolina, an abortion must be performed by a licensed physician. This case highlights the dire situation many Latina immigrants find themselves in without adequate information and access to reproductive health care services.

Women’s organizations should be able to make these connections and incorporate immigrant rights into their platforms. At the same time, we need increased leadership on the unique needs of female immigrants from immigrant rights groups and Latino advocacy organizations. Forty percent of Latinos in the United States are foreign-born.2 Without a doubt Latinas are the fastest growing ethnic group in the country and U.S.Latinas already account for one in every seven U.S.women of reproductive age.3 In today’s climate, Latinos/as are routinely subjected to discrimination based on surname and accent. Latinos/as who do not speak English or who have darker skin are assumed to be “illegal” and are unlawfully denied services or required to show proof of status. For organizations who advocate on behalf of Latinos/as, reforming immigration policy is a top priority on the policy agenda. However, Latino-focused organizations do not necessarily focus on challenges that specifically affect Latinas, and rarely even discuss matters relating to reproductive health and rights.

Similarly, immigrant rights groups are hesitant to openly advocate for the reproductive health of immigrant women, especially if it involves abortion access. Anti-immigrant and anti-abor- tion policy-makers are using rhetoric to devalue female immigrants and promote the value of the so-called “micro-Americans.” As feminists we must respond in unison to these arguments and understand that the implications of our failure to do so will be detrimental to rights and liberties of ALL women.

Reproductive justice advocates are trying to change the debate and raise awareness about the connections between women’s rights and immigrant rights. Advocates of reproductive justice understand that a woman cannot segregate her own identity into categories that reflect the preconceptions of our progressive movement. The collectiveness of our identities and experiences reflects the need to incorporate an intersectional approach to our feminist advocacy. For an undocumented immigrant Latina, her need to access reproductive health care is inextricably connected to her immigration status, her fear of deportation, her language barrier, her lack of insurance, and her family’s needs.

The future of immigration policy is far from rosy. While we may all agree that we need to reform immigration policy and that immigrants are living in unacceptable conditions, we do not agree on the solutions. Immigrant rights advocates are supporting reform that allows individuals to have basic protections in the workplace, to achieve legal status after meeting certain requirements, and to be treated with dignity and respect – a basic right all humans deserve. The anti-immigrant advocates are supporting tighter border control as a top priority, as well as deportation and incarceration for violators of our immigration laws.

Whether we have the power and the ability to influence the outcome of the policy debates, and ultimately the lives of immigrants, will depend on how much we are willing to stand up in support of our immigrant sisters.

As Latina feminists, we ask that all of our sisters join us in fighting for the rights of immigrant Latinas. Our feminist history demonstrates that civil rights, racial justice and equality for all have been fundamental principles of our work. Can we extend these values to undocumented immigrant women? While reproductive health and rights is one connection, we know that fighting for work environments that are safe and free of harassment is another, working to ensure that battered immigrant women are safe is also part of this fight and finally, we can extend our social justice values to support immigration reform that does not punish and criminalize and that does not promote a xenophobic and racist agenda-like building a fence on the U.S./Mexico border does.

There are feminist and women’s groups who have already taken a strong stance on behalf of immigrant women, but two or three organizations and individuals – many of whom are women of color and immigrants – do not make a movement. We need women from all backgrounds to hold themselves accountable and recognize that the value of self-determination applies to all. Justice for immigrant women will not happen overnight. Our struggle will be a long struggle, but the few of us who are proactively forming coalitions, organizing community and legislative forums and mobilizing our constituents see this fight as critical as the fight for legal abortions, contraception or funding for battered women’s shelters was in the 1960s and 1970s.

As the U.S.Women’s Movement we talk about the need to connect with the Global Feminist Movement. We do not need to leave the United States to make a very personal connection to women from all over the world. Let us remember that immigration is an intimate issue for most Americans: immigrant women harvest our food, care for our children and contribute, economically and culturally to our society. By standing in solidarity with our immigrant sisters we are building a stronger, more diverse feminist movement. In a world that is becoming more and more misogynistic and where there is talk about a post-feminist world, we need to demonstrate now, that fighting for the basic fundamental humane treatment of women is not in the past. It is not a post-feminist world when women continue to be stripped of then- dignity and left without a vehicle to reclaim power. That vehicle is the feminist movement. We ask that the needs of immigrant women become part of a unified and strong platform so that we can truly stand in sisterhood and start reclaiming our power.

Endnotes

1 Scarinci I, Beech B, Kovach K. An Examination ofSociocultural Factors Associated with Cervical Cancer Screening Among Low-income Latinos Immigrants of Reproductive Age. Journal of Immigrant Health, 119-128 (2003).

2 Kahn LK, Sobal J , Martorell. Acculturation, Socioeconomic Status and Health in Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans and Puerto Ricans. International Journal of Obesity, 91-96 (1997).

3 Anachebe N. Pharm D, Sutton. Racial Disparities in Reproductive Health Outcomes. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecolgy, 37-42 (2003).

SILVIA HENRIQUEZ is the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. Henriquez also has worked with the Feminist Majority Foundation and National Abortion Federation and the Latino Issues Forum. She sits on the boards of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project and the Guttmacher Institute.

ANOELA HOOTON is the vice president for National Programs at the Institute for Reproductive Health Access. As a legislative staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund she focused on policy issues relating to welfare, health and reproductive rights. Hooton serves on the boards of the National Women ‘s Health Network and the MergerWatch Law Students for Choice.

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