Undergraduate Writing Series
<em>¡Escúchanos!</em> Immigration and Reproductive Politics

¡Escúchanos! Immigration and Reproductive Politics

Juliana Parra

Two years ago, the case of a 17-year-old undocumented immigrant catalyzed the creation of a class action suit from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Jane Doe, the name given to maintain her anonymity and safety as a pregnant minor, and her story of struggle and success captivated the hearts of many and inspired them to challenge a system neglecting a population of Jane Does from their basic human rights.

Between mid-December 2017 and early April 2018, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained 590 pregnant women after a policy change implemented by the current administration denied exemption of detainment for expecting immigrants. ICE denied Jane Doe, like those around her, medical and reproductive health resources and care. Doe’s case was different in that she was specifically requesting permission to receive an abortion after learning she was pregnant while in custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

“I made my decision and that is between me and God. Through all of this, I have never changed my mind,” Doe said in a statement from the ACLU, where she expressed her stirring sentiments after weeks of legal battles and eventual victory.

The case of Jane Doe couples two of the United States’s most controversial political concerns, immigration and abortion, exposing the historical roots of the spectrum of state coercion against the poor, women of color, and immigrants. The intersection of reproductive politics and denying undocumented women access to adequate and safe health care and resources demonstrates the continuity of government control over immigrants and their bodies. The reality is, immigrant rights are human rights, and it is time we begin to challenge the traditional barriers delineating the two.

In the early 20th century, race and class ideologies permeated reproductive politics to maintain the ideals of white supremacists and their definition of motherhood as pertaining only to wealthy, educated, married white women. The government sterilized low-income, minority women who they deemed unfit for pregnancy and parenthood.1 Even after the end of official eugenic policies mid-century, racist and classist assumptions continued to govern reproductive healthcare. In southern California, during the 1960s and 1970s, male doctors coerced non-English-speaking Mexican immigrant women to consent to sterilization. These women were forced to sign away their bodies, thus eliminating their opportunity to have more children.2

A 1929 map shows compulsory sterilization laws in the effect in the United States. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

At the same time as these forced consent practices were occurring in southern California, white, Christian middle-class women began leading Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) across the country. These women believed that if they had conversations with expecting women about the psychological and physical consequences of abortion, the pregnant women would choose to keep their babies.3 In her research on these experiences and the anti-abortion movement, Karissa Haugeberg writes, “By constructing women with unwanted pregnancies as victims and themselves as saviors, CPC staff granted themselves permission to act paternalistically, deceiving and sometimes lying to the women who entered their facilities,” highlighting how clinics were deceiving young women into “desiring” motherhood.4

This form of emotional deceit still prevailed in 2018. Regardless of the success of Doe’s case, the ACLU discovered that other young immigrant women who were seeking abortion care were forced “to visit religiously affiliated anti-abortion clinics, receive medically unnecessary sonograms, and restricted from going to other providers who would explain all their options.” The state is physically and emotionally guilting young immigrant women into becoming mothers, taking away the control all women deserve over their bodies.

Moreover, across detention centers, pregnant immigrant women are experiencing injustices that surpass the terror they escaped in their home countries. Rubia Mabel Morales Alfaro (28), who was held in an ICE detention for over three months while pregnant, stated, “They said I didn’t have any rights [at the U.S. Custom and Border Patrol] and I told them I was asking for asylum because it was dangerous in my country, but they said [lies], that El Salvador was fine to live in.”

Although we have moved away from more physically coercive acts such as forced sterilization, today we read headlines covering a similar narrative: Mothers are being separated from their children at the border. These courageous women are now regretting their decisions to come to the U.S., letting go of the hope they once had to provide a better life for their children. Instead of a fresh beginning, these immigrant mothers are told they do not deserve a story in the first place.

Jane Doe was one of these women rethinking her decision to come to the United States, but, deciding to fight for her abortion, she made sure her story was heard. Jane Doe writes, “it was there [in a U.S. shelter for children] that I was told I was pregnant. I knew immediately what was best for me then, as I do now – that I’m not ready to be a parent.”5

Anti-abortion crusaders ironically equate choice to patriarchy, claiming individuals who counsel women through abortions are at fault for imposing their draconian beliefs upon the female body. Kristan Hawkins, president of the anti-abortion rights group Students for Life, called Jane Doe’s abortion approval “a tragedy,” declaring, “The U.S. should not become the abortion capital of the world.” To Hawkins and her followers, providing young immigrant women with the sexual health care resources and assistance necessary to make the best decisions for themselves will result in many of them choosing abortion. Therefore, to ensure the preservation of life, the government must implement explicit modifications to the available options.

Unfortunately, the government is neglecting to provide alternatives to support the livelihood and needs of low-income, minority American families, let alone immigrants. For example, Title X family planning care provides medical care and education for millions of patients who are below the federal poverty line, half of whom are people of color. As of 2018, these providers were the only continuous sources of sexual health resources many of these individuals received. Now, the government is allowing physicians who receive Title X funds to decline patient counseling, requiring them to refer all pregnant patients for prenatal care, and preventing providers to recommend any abortion clinic. These new rules are limiting the options for low-income people of color and diminishing their access to adequate protection and resources. These legal revisions beg the question: Where does it leave immigrant women in their fight for reproductive rights if they do not even have a seat at the table?

The story of Loretta Ross, who became director of programs for the National Black Women’s Health Project in 1989, can provide inspiration. In 2003, Ross co-directed a March for Women’s Lives. Her goal was to include more voices from women of color organizations, which in the end “helped the march succeed by pressing for an inclusive political agenda.”6 This reflected the distinct needs of all the diverse women fighting for their reproductive justice. “It’s becoming the connective framework that ties economic justice, human rights, reproductive rights, immigration rights, those kinds of things together,” Ross concluded.7 Yet today, our administration is choosing to ignore these multiple intersections.8

With hopes of salvaging and securing political support from his constituents, President Trump continues to enforce his anti-health and anti-immigrant agenda. This year at the annual March for Life event, he pledged his complete allegiance to his pro-life advocates by stating, “They are coming after me, because I am fighting for you. … [And] we will win, because we know how to win.” To President Trump, the “you” he addressed, the American people, does not include the immigrants who are fighting for inclusion.

Decades of continued coercion and control over migrant bodies highlight the deep and complex reality that reproductive rights are human rights. However, our government’s disdain has fueled activists like Ross to shape the foundation for a new social movement aimed at advocating against the oppressive political obstacles hindering undocumented immigrant women from their fundamental rights.

This is an unjust war against a marginalized population that cannot successfully fend for itself. Immigrants are fighting for their voices to be heard, and our nation must notice, not neglect, their significance.


  1. Rebecca Kluchin, Fit To Be Tied: Sterilization And Reproductive Rights In America, 1950–1980 (Rutgers University Press, 2011), 90. Return to text.
  2. No Más Bebés, directed by Renee Tajima-Peña (Independent Television Service, 2016). Return to text.
  3. Films Media Group and Home Box Office, 12th & Delaware (Home Box Office, 2016). Return to text.
  4. Karissa Haugeberg, Women Against Abortion: Inside the Largest Moral Reform Movement of the Twentieth Century (University of Illinois Press, 2017), 27. Return to text.
  5. Bill Chappell, “‘Jane Doe’ Immigrant Has Abortion In Texas, After Battle With Trump Administration,” NPR, October 25, 2017. Return to text.
  6. Jennifer Nelson, More Than Medicine: A History of the Feminist Women’s Health Movement (New York University Press, 2015), 218. Return to text.
  7. Nelson, More Than Medicine, 194. Return to text.
  8. Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger, Reproductive Justice: An Introduction (University of California Press, 2017). Return to text.

Featured image caption: Signs at the May Day Immigration Rights Rally (Washington, DC), 2007. (Courtesy takomabibelot)

Juliana Parra is a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia studying Youth and Social Innovation and American Studies with a concentration in Race & Ethnicity. Her interests lie in social justice through improving education practice and policy.