Why Immigration Status Has a Bigger Impact on Reproductive Rights Than You Think

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Jan 22, 2018

Today (January 22) marks 45 years since the historic Roe v. Wade decision ushered in legal access to abortion in the U.S. In the decades since, there have been consistent efforts by those who oppose abortion rights to chip away at access to the procedure. Limitations on funding through health insurance programs. "TRAP laws" aimed at shutting down abortion clinics. Waiting periods and mandatory ultrasounds.

The reality of the landscape today is that ease of access to abortion depends significantly on your economic status and where you live. Particularly for low-income women, and women living in states with few abortion clinics (which is common in the South), access to the medical procedure can be fraught with barriers. But there is another factor that is having an increasingly big impact on reproductive health and rights decisions: immigration status.

One’s citizenship status can have an impact on their reproductive health decisions in a number of ways. For the four young undocumented women who’ve been detained over the last few month, known only by their pseudonyms Jane Moe, Jane Doe, Jane Roe and Jane Poe, being undocumented became a literal barrier to accessing the abortions they wanted. All are minors who were held in shelters run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), and all were prevented from getting an abortion by ORR Director Scott Lloyd, who is publicly anti-abortion. These young women had to fight in court, with support of the ACLU, to be granted access to the legal abortions they wanted while in ORR custody. "The Trump administration is relentless in its cruelty, blocking abortion access for the most marginalized people in our country," said the ACLU in a statement to Newsweek in response to these cases.

Colorlines spoke to two women, both born in Mexico and raised in the U.S., both without citizenship, who found that their decision to have an abortion was heavily influenced by their immigration status.

Alejandra Pablos was a legal permanent resident (LPR), until she ran into legal trouble at 24, including a DUI. While serving her probation in Arizona, she was detained by ICE and kept in a private immigration detention center for two years. As a result, she lost her LPR status. Since Pablos was released on bond from immigration detention in 2013, she has fought to regain status and failed. Her most recent attempt is a still-pending application for political asylum.

Last year, Pablos learned she was pregnant. "When I first found out, I was conflicted," Pablos shared on a press call hosted by the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF). "For a minute or two I smiled at the idea of being a mother. [Then] I quickly had a reality check and knew I couldn’t start a family here, right now. The same people who would force me to continue my pregnancy are the same people who would rip my baby from my arms and deport me because of my immigration status."

Layidua Salazar, who lives in Oakland, was married to an American citizen when she tried to adjust her status in 2011. Her request was denied, says Salazar, because she and her husband’s relationship was long distance. "We were waiting for letters from immigration assuming that we would get a court case or some follow-up, but instead I got a letter of deportation," explains Salazar.

The next day, she was at her local Oakland Planned Parenthood for a routine checkup and discovered she was pregnant. "I quickly thought about what I did or did not want for my life—[including] the worst case scenario if I was deported and whether I would leave with an infant or leave [the child] with my elderly parents. My documentation status never felt more real than that moment," she says. "I had to decide whether or not to have a child given that I might not be in this country in a year."

Both women decided to have abortions, and with residency in Washington, D.C. and Oakland, respectively, neither faced any barriers to getting their procedures. Pablos and Salazar, though, recognize that not all undocumented immigrants could have made the same decision. "It’s really scary," says Salazar of being undocumented and needing an abortion. "I feel like I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up in California, and that by the time I needed an abortion I was already doing reproductive health work. I knew a lot about access to health care that many undocumented people don’t."

They’ve both joined an initiative by NNAF called We Testify, which trains people to tell their abortion stories publicly. "There is one [narrative] told about [undocumented immigrants] which is that we want to come here and have anchor babies," explains Salazar about why she joined We Testify. "I like being able to explain that we’re actually people with complex lives and sometimes children fit into that and sometimes they don’t."

Pablos agrees. "Not all people want to come here and have babies," she says. "America right now is not the America where I want to raise a family. How do you expect us to want to create families in such a hostile environment?"

Salazar was able to apply for DACA when it began in 2012, so her deportation case is currently on hold. But she does not mince words about the situation facing non-citizen immigrants in the U.S. under the Trump administration: "It feels like we are reverting to a time when we have to live in the shadows for our own safety."