The Disastrous Effects of Immigration Policy on Women’s Lives


This article is one in a series on immigrant rights and attacks against immigrants being published by RH Reality Check in partnership with the National Coalition for Immigrant Women's Rights.  See all articles in the series here.

In March, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research published new research that offers a glimpse into the disastrous effects of immigration policy on women’s lives, including their access to reproductive justice.  Our report, Organizations Working with Latina Immigrants: Resources and Strategies for Change, shows that policies ostensibly put in place to combat illegal immigration have proven particularly detrimental to immigrant women’s access to reproductive justice (among other human rights) in three main ways: they have made access to many vital public services contingent on strict eligibility requirements, created a climate of fear that restricts immigrants’ mobility and discourages them from seeking services, and have led to detention and deportation practices that undermine immigrants’ parental rights.

In 460 interviews with 280 organizations working with Latina immigrants in Northern Virginia, Atlanta, and Phoenix, IWPR found that local, state, and national immigration policies have created a situation in which many immigrant women are denied access to family planning, pre-natal care, and general health care. They also face significant barriers as caretakers struggling to provide a safe and nurturing environment for their families.  While public policies in the United States present significant obstacles to reproductive justice for all women, anti-immigrant policies compound these struggles for immigrant women.

Local, state, and national policies combine to effectively deny access to government-funded health services to immigrant women and their families. On the national level, these barriers to access include the restriction of eligibility for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to children of parents who can prove that they have legally resided in the United States for a minimum of five years. On the state level, we see laws like Arizona’s Proposition 200, which requires that anyone applying for benefits show proof of citizenship and makes it a misdemeanor for public officials to fail to report individuals they suspect are undocumented. As a result, immigrant women and their families often rely on the health services offered by community health centers or on health fairs held at local nonprofit organizations or religious congregations. While these services provide important forms of assistance, they do not fill the void. Only two of the 280 organizations interviewed for IWPR’s study offered abortion services, and six offered pre-natal care. Forty organizations provided family planning education, but many interpreted “family planning” through the lens of religious doctrine, making it difficult for immigrant women to access a full spectrum of information and services. 

These limitations are predictable by-products of a larger trend in which governments shirk their responsibility to provide vital public services, and religious organizations and nonprofits try to pick up the slack (with limited economic and personnel resources and often within the bounds of religious doctrine).  The end result is that communities suffer. This suffering is obscured by campaigns of misinformation suggesting that immigrant families drain public coffers when the opposite is in fact the case. The extent to which these arguments are not only anti-immigrant, but also anti-woman and anti-family, is clear.

Immigrant women’s ability to ensure their family’s health and safety is directly undermined by anti-immigrant policies that create an environment of intense and unrelenting fear. This fear significantly restricts immigrant women’s mobility and access to services:  during our interviews, IWPR researchers heard stories of women who avoided taking their injured children to the emergency room, refused to seek legal protection from abuse at home and in the workplace, and did not try to seek other forms of assistance for which they were eligible. Those who did seek access to public services sometimes faced serious consequences: one organization spoke about a client who called 911 for help during a domestic violence incident, only to be questioned by the operator about her immigration status.  

Denial of immigrant women’s reproductive rights is also built into the detention and deportation process. Respondents to the study spoke about situations in which officials failed to allow immigrant parents to communicate with their families and to secure alternative care for their children when they were taken into detention. The Women’s Refugee Commission has reported on family separation as a result of detention policies, including cases in which authorities placed children in foster care (and sometimes even initiated adoption proceedings) without notifying parents. Women and members of the LGBTQ community face particularly high rates of physical and sexual violence in detention, compounding the trauma of bodily and reproductive sovereignty already under attack.

In spite of widely available research that overwhelmingly demonstrates that immigration and detention policies in the United States are abusive of basic human rights, destructive to communities, and ineffective at achieving their purported goals, many policymakers continue to push for increasingly stringent anti-immigrant policies. Their actions demonstrate a careless disregard for immigrants’ reproductive and human rights. A closer look, however, suggests that the rhetoric behind these policies is in fact often grounded in an understanding of the interconnectedness of reproductive rights and anti-immigrant policy (see, for example, arguments against immigrants’ 14th Amendment rights).  Immigrant women’s access to reproductive justice isn’t an accidental casualty in the war on illegal immigration, it’s a strategic target.


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