Immigrant Women’s Health is at Stake: Do Something!
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity attend an interesting event, “Women and Immigration Reform: A Commitment to Women, Children, and Families.” In addition to learning the different aspects of the developing house and senate bills, I heard two firsthand accounts of how difficult, scary, and often blatantly unjust life as an illegal immigrant in America can be. With all of the recent developments in immigration reform, and the likelihood that it will keep emerging as a hot button issue in the future, it is more important than ever before to understand the health implications for immigrant women, who may have the most at stake when all is said and done.
According to We Belong Together, about 60% of immigrant women are in the labor force, many of them in home care, without formal paystubs or proof of employment. The other 40% are at home taking care of their own families. Without proof of employment, many women can’t access the health care they need. They might also be subject to harsh working conditions, unfair pay, or harassment that they can do little to nothing about.
Even when immigrant women are able to access a clinic, barriers still exist. Political motivations that attempt to not only restrict access to care but also to implement policies to dissuade immigrant women from reproducing have serious repercussions for this vulnerable population, according to the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. Further, lack of access to information and limited support from the government in learning English make medical decision making extremely difficult.
Undocumented immigrants may face particular challenges to accessing care. Fear of being discovered and deported can prevent them from seeking help, even when they are in desperate need of treatment. Further, although the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 (CHIPRA) allows “lawfully residing” immigrant women to access prenatal care without waiting the required 5 years, undocumented women can only receive care in an “emergency” – only in labor and delivery.
Another issue largely unique to immigrants: trafficking. The HHS Office on Women’s Health estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year, about 80% of them women and girls. These women work unpaid or under-paid jobs, with terrible conditions, and are often sexually harassed and exploited. The victims have no resources with which to leave or seek care.
These problems are large and unavoidable, and the bulk of the reform work has yet to be done. The recent passing of the Senate bill S. 744 may be considered a step in the right direction: it includes aid for survivors of intimate partner violence, ends the shackling of pregnant women in detention centers, and enables proof of employment outside of a paystub. Others, like Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, the Executive Director at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, argue that the Senate bill places a greater disadvantage on immigrant women working towards citizenship, who would fulfill various requirements for 15 years (including paying taxes) before health coverage would become available. Regardless of the policy intricacies, one thing is vehemently clear: innocent women’s health and happiness are at risk, and we need to act. So let’s raise awareness of this critical health and human rights issue, and do something!