As a reproductive health organization, sometimes people are surprised to learn that the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health does immigrants’ rights work. The truth is that immigration and reproductive justice are inextricably tied, and the health and struggles of immigrant detainees is an area that is particularly ripe for action. Though we envision a world without immigration detention, the reality is that people go through this system daily, and many of them are Latinas. Within this system, Latina immigrants face barriers that are particular to their gender.
One clear example is the experience of pregnant detainees. Incarcerated women are routinely shackled and restrained during pregnancy and labor, and immigration detention centers are no exception. The widely-publicized case of Juana Villegas is disturbing, yet unfortunately unsurprising. Taken into immigration detention due to a traffic misdemeanor the day before her due date, Juana gave birth while detained. She was shackled during labor and her child was taken from her immediately, causing health problems for both her and her child.
Detainees may also experience difficulty getting the medications and health care they need, and gender plays a role in this area as well. Access to emergency contraception and abortion services while in detention is inconsistent at best, which becomes more disturbing with the knowledge that sexual assault in immigration detention is shockingly common. Transgender and gender non-conforming persons who receive hormone treatment also report issues with continuing this treatment in immigration detention.
As with any gender-segregated institution, immigration detention centers can be dangerous places for transgender and gender non-conforming immigrants. Immigration detention officers have been known to put transgender immigrants in barracks according to their birth gender instead of the barracks of the detainee’s choosing, which leaves them vulnerable to violence and sexual assault. Another tactic is to place transgender detainees in solitary confinement, a practice which has been increasingly likened to torture. The case of Victoria Arellano is a heartbreaking example of the experience of transgender detainees. Repeatedly denied HIV medication, Victoria quickly became very ill. She was not taken to a hospital until her fellow detainees, in an act of resistance, staged a strike to demand that she receive care. But it was too late for Victoria; she died in the hospital, shackled to her bed and away from her family and loved ones.
The cases I’ve highlighted are horrifying, and yet they only represent a few cases that have received media attention; countless more are enduring these experiences outside of the media’s purview. This is why the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health works to bring a gender angle to the immigrants’ rights movement through our work and the work we do with the National Coalition for Immigrant Women’s Rights. These experiences are distinctly gendered, and unless we bring this perspective to the table, these issues become invisible as mainstream media continue to paint immigration as heterosexual and male – ignoring the distinct and particular issues women, transgender, and gender non-conforming immigrants face. Because when we fight for immigrants’ rights, unless we truly fight for all immigrants, we will not see justice.
Veronica Bayetti Flores is a Senior Policy Analyst at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. She comes to the Latina Institute with a wide range of experiences in reproductive justice, including direct services, research and advocacy. At NLIRH, Veronica conducts research and analysis of national policy that affects the sexual and reproductive health and rights of Latinas, as well as writing and speaking about these issues. She has worked to increase access to contraception, fought for paid sick leave, demanded access to safe public space for queer youth of color, and helped to lead social justice efforts in Wisconsin and New York City.
She received a B.S. in Psychology and a minor in Women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 2008, Veronica obtained her Master’s degree in the Sexuality and Health program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She currently sits on the boards of the National Coalition for LGBT Health and the National Network of Abortion Funds.