Nearly one year ago, in February 2019, a 24-year-old Honduran woman in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody went into premature labor while 27 weeks pregnant. The federal immigration agency failed to transport the woman to a hospital in a timely manner, and she gave birth to a stillborn at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Texas. Days after the news of this tragic story broke, I spoke to Nancy Cárdenas Peña, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health’s (NLIRH) Texas director for policy and advocacy. Peña was raw with emotion and inconsolable. The conversation we had then has haunted me throughout the year, and it has also reaffirmed my commitment to continue covering immigration as a reproductive justice issue and to urge other journalists to do the same.
During our interview, Peña was pained as she explained what should have been common sense: Pregnant people should not be detained by ICE. The agency does not have the ability, resources or desire to provide proper medical care to any detained people, but especially those in need of prenatal care. In March 2018, this did not stop the Trump administration from verifying that it rescinded an Obama-era policy that ordered immigration officials generally to release pregnant migrants from federal custody. (Two years ago I reported that the policy seemed to be in flux because ICE was not releasing pregnant people from custody as far back as September 2017.)
When I spoke to Peña in February 2019, she was also enraged. She’d just come back from visiting Port Isabel and after the news broke about the Honduran woman’s story; Peña frantically reached out to other immigration organizations and requested that they stop sidelining reproductive rights issues. She also urged them to release a statement calling the latest atrocity what it was: a reproductive injustice, and part of a larger series of attacks from the Trump administration targeting pregnant migrants. In the end, none of the organizations Peña reached out to committed to her small request of releasing a statement—and to reproductive rights organizations, the Honduran woman’s story was barely a blip on the radar.
NLIRH is one of the few national organizations focusing on immigration and reproductive justice, a crucial intersection to be working at—especially under the Trump administration.
Reproductive justice—a movement and theoretical framework created by women of color and particularly pushed forward by Black women across the American South—is defined by the reproductive justice organization SisterSong as the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children or not have children, and parent children in safe and sustainable communities. Under the Trump administration, the public has witnessed some of the most blatant attacks on immigrants and reproductive rights in modern history. Scott Lloyd, the former Office of Refugee Resettlement director who blocked young people in custody from accessing abortion care because of religious reasons, was just one early example.
Reproductive injustice occurs when families are separated at the border; when mixed-status families live in daily fear of family separation (otherwise known as deportation); when women facing deportation are forced to give birth in sanctuary churches out of fear of being taken by ICE at the hospital; when parents are apprehended in immigration raids; and as pregnant people continue to be targeted for prosecution and suffer some of the most severe consequences for migrating.
Because of ICE’s shifting policies for detaining pregnant people, dozens have miscarried in federal immigration custody and thousands of pregnant people have been jailed for immigration violations, including hundreds who were held for weeks and sometimes months. This marked a 52 percent increase in the number of pregnant people detained under the Trump administration, according to a Government Accountability Office report released in December. A recent Time magazine article by Reva Siegel and Duncan Hosie also revealed the link between the Trump administration’s anti-abortion and anti-immigrant policies: “The President has a growing number of supporters who understand opposition to abortion and immigration as intertwined—as means of preserving a white, Christian America. And the Trump Administration is taking concrete steps to encourage this ideational fusion.”
I admit that as a journalist, I’ve had many moments when I have felt exactly the way that Peña described. I have often felt alone in reporting on the intersection of immigration and reproductive justice, and have often struggled to convince editors why covering immigration from a reproductive justice lens is important. When news breaks of another clear reproductive injustice in the immigration system, I think: Where are the health care, policy and repro reporters?
In 2020, I want to see more media outlets blowing the lid off of the conditions faced by pregnant people in federal custody—the absence of prenatal care, the shackling, the miscarriages, the fatal incompetence that regularly leads to in-custody deaths.
When I think of recent immigration reporting that exploded across the country — the targeting of domestic violence survivors outside of courthouses; the continued separation of migrant families at the border; the never-ending attacks on asylum seekers, which is to say attacks on women fleeing gender-based violence; sexual assaults, deaths and disappearances tied to Migrant Protection Protocols; the deaths of Central American children in Customs and Border Protection custody; and the death of a father and his young daughter who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande into the United States — I know these are all stories about reproductive justice.
When the United States creates structural and systemic barriers against the migration of certain people, and then funnels these migrants into facilities that dehumanize them, abuse them and profit off their suffering, this is an attack on bodily autonomy. In this political moment, undocumented parents and caregivers are wholly unable to parent their children in safe and sustainable communities.
Expanding on this framework further, the racial justice organization Forward Together defines reproductive justice as the belief that all people should have the social, political, and economic power and resources to make healthy decisions about their gender, bodies, sexuality, and families for themselves and their communities. If you widen your scope to consider this framework in immigration reporting, you see that immigration is fundamentally a reproductive justice issue, and when President Trump signed an executive order making every undocumented person in the United States deportable, it had far-reaching implications for reproductive justice.
In 2020, I want to challenge immigration reporters, readers, activists, scholars, teachers and others to invest time in learning about the reproductive justice framework as a way of analyzing the violence faced by immigrant communities. The Trump administration has essentially operated under the presumption that migrants do not deserve human rights or dignity, as evidenced by the administration’s refusal to provide children in custody with something as basic as flu shots, even after multiple children have died of the flu in immigration custody. War is being waged on the bodily autonomy of certain, vulnerable people. Let’s all start discussing immigration in a way that reflects this reality.
Note: This article has been amended to clarify that the definition of reproductive justice described was crafted by Forward Together rather than by Race Forward.