By Adrian Johansen
The crackdown on immigration at the southern border has dramatically affected Mexican individuals seeking to move to the United States. Increased deportations and the separation of families have created an atmosphere of fear and confusion. While all immigrants are affected by these changing policies, migrant women face unique challenges.
With the current political climate in the U.S. being uncertain, immigration is an evolving issue. From the ending of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to the termination of the temporary protected status program affecting 325,000 immigrants, changing immigration policies are altering migrant women’s lives and making immigration a much riskier choice.
In order to support migrant women, we need to better understand how immigration policies affect them. By advocating for policy changes and increasing immigrant access to healthcare and other services, we can better support them.
Why Women Immigrate to the United States
Many immigrants come to the United States in pursuit of the “American dream” of financial independence for themselves and their families. In fact, immigrants have founded over 25% of U.S. startup businesses. Their hardworking attitudes and desire to succeed makes them natural entrepreneurs, such as Indra Nooyi, who moved to the United States and worked her way up from a receptionist to the CEO of PepsiCo.
Many other factors drive migrant women’s desire to immigrate to the United States. In many cases, women seek to escape famine, war, gang violence, and persecution, often bringing their children with them. But immigrating to the United States is becoming more challenging and dangerous.
With recent policy changes, programs that previously protected immigrants, such as DACA or the temporary protected status program, have been or are being ended or restricted. In the last fiscal year, the United States government denied 65% of immigrant asylum claims. Though refugee status applications have risen, the number of refugee admissions will be reduced by 33% in 2019.
Dangers in Immigrant Detention Centers
The Trump administration increased immigration enforcement efforts while establishing a zero-tolerance policy for illegal border crossing, culminating in more migrants being held in detention centers than ever before. Migrant women face unique challenges in these detention centers, including abuse and sexual harassment.
Between 2010 and 2017, 1,224 complaints of sexual assault and abuse were filed by migrants in detention centers. Most of those complaints accused ICE officers or contractors. Instances of sexual assault and abuse can be particularly traumatic for migrant women who are fleeing their home countries because of previous trauma, but fear of deportation means that many women simply endure the abuse.
In addition to physical abuse, these women can suffer poor mental health because of the environments in detention centers. Verbal insults, threats, punishments, and frequently changing rules can create stress and emotional turmoil for women. In some cases, migrants may be separated from their children and deported without them, making for a devastating experience.
Lack of Healthcare Access for Migrant Women
Changing policies have further reduced access to healthcare for migrant women. Close quarters in detention facilities result in the rapid spread of disease; a chickenpox outbreak in the Artesia Family Residential Center in New Mexico resulted in a total facility quarantine, for example. Migrant women have died while in detention facilities, and migrants can only access limited healthcare in those facilities.
Whereas pregnant immigrants were previously released from detention centers, a 2018 policy change eliminated that practice. This policy change means that more pregnant women can be held in detention facilities as they wait for court proceedings to determine whether they may stay in the country. In two years, as many as 28 women may have had miscarriages while in ICE custody.
Additionally, in 2017, the Trump administration tried to prevent a 17-year-old migrant teen from obtaining an abortion. The teen had traveled to the United States without her family and had learned she was pregnant while in a federal shelter for minors. She tried to obtain an abortion in Texas and was only able to proceed after the case was tried in court.
What We Can Do to Support Migrants
Ultimately, the elimination of detention centers and a transition to a community-based alternative would create a healthier, more humane environment. Migrant women need help to access quality medical care, counseling, lawyers, social services, and to find jobs. Financial security is a priority for most immigrants, since they often borrow money to escape the violence of their home countries and have come to America to seek better living conditions.
One particularly important way we can support migrants is to establish a deeper understanding of their life circumstances within the medical field. These women may be less likely to seek healthcare due to factors such as cultural and linguistic barriers. Nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals must develop a better understanding of how these cultural differences can affect their patients so that they can better serve migrant populations.
Because of the unique challenges these people face, their immigration journey is particularly dangerous and stressful. Establishing more support services here in the United States can help to combat xenophobia while aiding migrant women as they transition into their new lives.