As abruptly as stories like the abuse of Ms. Villegas appear in the headlines, they fade away. But for justice-oriented organizations such as the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, this young mothers harrowing ordeal is an urgent reminder that our immigration system is badly in need of reform. Human rights abuses are not only tolerated but too often cheered when it comes to women immigrants, and the persistent bias and vitriol about immigrants teaches Americans to hate and fear minorities.
Immigrant women are the backbone of our communities, providing services we all depend on in our daily lives, yet they often remain in the shadows. Many immigrant women are forced to work in low-paying industries, such as food service and seasonal farm work, even when they are qualified to work in higher paying jobs. Many jobs available to women immigrants provide neither health benefits nor the incomes needed to purchase health insurance for themselves or their families, and many states prohibit Medicaid access for undocumented women. Even those who are legal residents of the United States are barred from accessing care since 1996, a restriction known as the five-year bar prohibits immigrants who have been legal permanent residents of the United States for less than five years access to public programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. These restrictions create near-impossible barriers to basic reproductive health care such as regular cancer screening, contraceptives and abortion services.
Yet this unwavering dedication to the American dream makes it more likely that their families will be able to open small businesses, purchase homes and contribute to the American economy.
The Arizona law shows us that fear and misguided frustration targets vulnerable women immigrants and traumatizes their children. As a society when we sanction bias, vitriol and discrimination, we all lose.
Silvia Henriquez is the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, a nonprofit policy and advocacy organization based in New York and Washington, D.C., which works on behalf of reproductive health interests of the nations 15 million Latinas.