Immigration & Abortion Care: Why Reproductive Rights are Inextricable from Migration

by | Oct 1, 2021 | Reproductive Rights

As Texas implemented its egregious abortion restriction, Mexico finally decriminalized abortion. The move is a major victory for Mexican people and advocates, and a sign of change and hope for those living in other countries, particularly in Central America, where abortion is prohibited altogether. Countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Haiti in the Caribbean have imposed some of the cruelest legal punishments on women who seek to express their reproductive rights. For instance, the anti-abortion stigma in El Salvador is so severe that women who experience a miscarriage or stillbirth are charged with murder and face years in prison.

This Latinx Heritage Month, it’s time we re-evaluate the link between access to abortion and immigration for the survival of women and pregnant people seeking refuge in the United States. Though more research is necessary to understand the motivations of women who migrate from countries with anti-abortion laws, in response to societal dynamics and the time-sensitivity that is inherent to abortion care, people will migrate to access abortion services and do so while weighing the risks and assessing the trade-offs involved with their journey. Although migrating to access abortion care is typically associated with abortion restrictions from the past, people continue to do so today.

We know people commonly cross borders for reproductive freedom while simultaneously breaking the law. In a pre-Roe v. Wade society, American women often traveled across state lines and borders through networks to end unintended pregnancies, despite the risk and illegality. With limited access to abortions in the U.S., many American women were able to receive abortions in Mexico. Whether crossing state lines, or the U.S.-Mexico border (northward or southward), women have and continue to surmount barriers. For some though, these barriers are insurmountable and lead to tragic outcomes: for example, Rosie Jimenez, a twenty-seven-year-old, became the first known woman to die of an illegal abortion because of the Hyde Amendment in Texas in 1977. The Hyde Amendment prevented (and still prohibits) Medicaid from covering most abortions, forcing Rosie to cross the border in search of care.

Travel and access to safe abortion remain inextricably linked nearly fifty years later, especially in abortion deserts, where care is almost entirely unavailable. Today, the Texas SB8 bill, a near-total abortion ban, has shed light on some of the outdated and oppressive travel restrictions immigrant people encounter in the border towns of Texas. Wherever abortion is made inaccessible, people will be forced to travel, either hours in rural areas or crossing borders. This is compounded by the anti-immigrant backlash and reproduction-based stereotypes that undocumented women crossing borders confront — whether “super breeders” or mothers to “anchor babies,” immigrant women are systematically punished and scapegoated.

Today, the process of immigration has put thousands of people’s reproductive freedoms at risk. Detained immigrants must fight a flurry of obstacles — including state and federal regulations, financial impediments, and language barriers — in order to obtain an abortion. Under the Trump administration, teenagers in ICE custody seeking an abortion were required to obtain governmental approval; approval which was denied to every single applicant until the policy was discontinued in 2020. One whistleblower reported high rates of unnecessary hysterectomies, some done without the consent of the patient, at a Georgia detention facility. The American immigration system systematically denies immigrants their right to health care and to reproductive freedom, and actively endangers their wellbeing.

People seeking bodily autonomy are denied this fundamental human right due to outdated immigration laws, and immigrant status perpetuates the stigma of abortion that is already unequivocally a part of their lives. As long as immigration travel restrictions are in place, such as the checkpoints in the south of Texas, immigrants, particularly undocumented people, will not know reproductive autonomy and will continue to suffer the severe consequences that come with denying people access to abortion care.