My colleague Flavia Dzodan has done tremendous work in the area of representing the rights, concerns, and interests of immigrant women around the world; particularly in Europe, where she lives and works. Yet, one of her recurrent frustrations, and one I share with her, is the lack of attention on the part of the progressive left paid to immigrant women in the United States. Whenever she writes a stunning piece on the abuses endured by immigrant women in the name of western powers, it gets virtually no attention. An uncomfortable silence prevails until people can return to a topic they like better.
Even progressives have to admit that immigration is a huge issue in the United States right now. One need only look to the rising tide of anti-immigrant laws in numerous states, to the escalation in anti-immigrant rhetoric, to understand that this is a serious and growing issue. Add to that the unfavourable depiction of immigrants in pop culture, the hate crimes against immigrants or people presumed to be immigrants, the exploitation of immigrant labour across the United States. And the horrible conditions in immigration detention, the place people are sent to when they’re caught up in law enforcement sweeps, and the place where they can be immured for weeks, months, or even years.
As citizens, there are a lot of rights we enjoy when it comes to being arrested and incarcerated. There are rules. They are applied unfairly, the justice system for citizens is extremely broken and needs a lot of work, but there are some checks and balances within that system that are designed to prevent things like indefinite detention. Such things, however, do not apply to immigrants who are in the United States illegally; they don’t have the protections we do, and that makes them extremely vulnerable to abuse.
Nowhere does that become more apparent than in the cases of immigrant women, who are raped, beaten, and assaulted while in custody. For pregnant women, the abuse and horror take on a whole new level, and it’s one that progressives should be addressing, but aren’t. The conditions in immigration detention for pregnant women are a national shame, something the country as a whole should be hanging its head over, but people remain largely unaware; both out of a desire to remain unaware, and out of media manipulation which leads them to focus on other issues, making it easy to forget about what happens behind the razorwire.
Women who enter immigration detention while pregnant have limited options in terms of care. They can’t access abortions, which forces them to carry pregnancies, wanted or not; and some of those pregnancies are very much not wanted, as they may be legacies of rapes while crossing the border, while being exploited in US communities, or in detention itself. Whether you want it or not, you’re stuck with a pregnancy, but the facility usually doesn’t provide you with the prenatal care you need.
Pregnant women need regular medical checkups to monitor their health and that of the fetus. They need appropriate dietary modifications to ensure the developing fetus gets the nutrition it needs, and that they, too, get the nutrition they need. Interventions like folic acid in the early stages of fetal development are critical. Women who don’t access stable, appropriate prenatal care are more likely to have poor pregnancy outcomes, which means that for pregnant immigrants, detention can be extremely dangerous both for them and their developing fetuses.
Those who stay in detention long enough to go into labour face the same kinds of conditions pregnant prisoners experience. That can include being left to labour for hours without assistance or care, being shackled in medical facilities during labour and delivery, and having babies removed immediately after birth. In the case of immigrant women, the chances at reuniting are slim because of their immigration status. The United States breaks up immigrant families on a regular basis, and this is one of the ways in which it does it; this should be viewed as a profound human rights violation, and yet, it’s rarely discussed. The fact that a woman’s baby is being taken from her somewhere in the United States right now, in all probability, should disturb you.
Over 100 people have died in US immigration detention in the last decade. At least one of them was a pregnant woman with a history of blood clots who reported symptoms consistent with a clotting problem and was ignored. She, like other pregnant women in detention, the majority of whom are Latina, died because the provision of basic health services to people we are incarcerating is apparently too much for the United States government to handle. And she died because we, the people of the United States, have allowed conditions in detention to remain in the state they are, by quietly turning our backs on them.
Progressives, currently fighting to retain reproductive rights across the country, could be in a strong position to advocate for better prenatal care, labour and delivery conditions, and postnatal treatment for pregnant women in detention. Yet, for the most part, they don’t, and that’s troubling. Reproductive justice is for everyone, and I don’t want to live in a country where pregnant women are left in shackles, knowing that if they report complications, their cries for help may well be ignored until it’s too late.