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A member of the NLIRH's Texas Latina Advocacy Network, which has mobilized around issues such as access to transportation to reproductive healthcare in rural communities. (National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health / Flickr)

The Democrats’ Missed Opportunity

In failing to link immigrant rights and women’s rights, DNC speakers overlooked how injustices interlock

BY Michelle Chen

Pivoting to Latino and women voters, the Democrats aimed to make those third-rail issues palatable to a prime-time audience, not to advance a progressive political discourse. But they missed how political assaults on communities of color, immigrants and women are mutually reinforcing.

Last week, two issues highlighted at the Democratic National Convention represented a notable departure from the talk of jobs and economic growth. There was a classic striving immigrant narrative, embodied in the poetic if oversimplified family story of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. And there was a passionate defense of reproductive rights delivered by Sandra Fluke, who famously incurred ultra-conservative wrath for speaking out on contraceptive access. Both speeches showed the double-edged power of political storytelling: to inspire while masking the deeper issues that the mainstream political realm deftly obscures every four years.

Pivoting to Latino and women voters, the Democrats were capitalizing on ideological divisions in Washington on reproductive choice and immigration. But while the party repackaged those issues into slickly marketed talking points, the messaging spoke to messier unrest at the grassroots. Responding to years of grassroots pressure (from the sit-ins staged by so-called Dream Activists to the bold protest-on-wheels of the Undocubus, which rolled defiantly outside the convention), Obama has offered temporary reprieve to undocumented youth and promised to ease mass deportations for many immigrants with clean records. Meanwhile, the White House has cautiously pushed back against right-wing assaults on women's health in the Affordable Care Act. But the response to the war of attrition on women's rights comes amid rising frustration among pro-choice advocates who've witnessed Democrats' repeated capitulations to anti-choice forces that have monopolized the abortion debate.

The narratives on the convention stage aimed to make those third-rail issues palatable to a prime-time audience, not to advance a progressive political discourse. As is common in portrayals of immigrants, even positive ones, they were framed as economic contributors–as obedient labor rather than real community members with complex needs and aspirations. Similarly, issues surrounding that other oft-overlooked constituency, women, are often viewed through the narrow prism of reproductive “choice” in the abstract but not necessarily the larger issues of class and poverty that undermine women's control over their bodies and lives.

As Sady Doyle has noted, truly considering immigrant women's reproductive rights forces us to look at both issues in a more complex, wholistic way. The failure in Charlotte to link immigration and reproductive rights reflects a blind spot in a political establishment that focuses on rights in terms of “reform” for immigrants and “choice” for women, rather than justice.

In his convention speech before a rapt audience, President Obama told a little story about a hypothetical immigrant child–a girl who could finally have a chance to live without fear of deportation in the only country she’s ever known.

But what happens to that little girl when her mom loses her off-the-books job because she she falls ill? A typical job for an undocumented woman is a domestic worker–a sector dominated by women, immigrants and people of color, and one historically excluded from federal labor protections such as sick leave. These workers have mobilized successfully for initiatives like the California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which establish critical labor standards. Their very existence defies the establishment’s desire to exploit immigrant labor without valuing their communities. Moreover, the rising community-based movements to empower marginalized workers show that this struggle increasingly integral to, and contingent on, building a more inclusive, diverse labor movement.

What happens in a few years with our immigrant youth realizes her school doesn’t offer comprehensive sex education, or that she can’t afford birth control? In the immigration debate, Latinas have been ruthlessly targeted by both racism and misogyny, manifested not just in vile stereotypes of immigrant mothers and “anchor babies,” but in the cruel epidemic of family separation through deportation.

Equally warped is the day-to-day reality of reproductive health care for immigrants. According to the National Coalition for Immigrant Women’s Rights, affordable health coverage is out of reach for most undocumented women. Federal reform could help many immigrants and people of color, but for the most part arbitrarily excludes undocumented members of those communities. Even many documented immigrants have to wait half a decade before qualifying for crucial preventive Medicaid services. Structural barriers to essential services like family planning and screening for cervical cancer or HIV expose how social disenfranchisement weaves throughout the lives of immigrant women and their families.

A typical immigrant woman may never receive care during her pregnancy until she heads to the emergency room in labor. For migrant women farmworkers, there might be a simple clinic near their seasonal work site, but getting there could be dangerous, with the constant threat of getting swept up by immigration authorities. As David Strauss, executive director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs points out, “Accessing any social services is nearly impossible for migrant workers who are not documented. And, it is risky especially in states that have enacted immigration enforcement policies.”

Undocumented youth activist Angy Rivera recently blogged for the National Latina Institute of Reproductive Health (NLIRH) about the multiple frustrations she endures as a woman, immigrant and advocate for her community:

When it comes to rushing to the emergency room, I hesitate, worrying about the large sum on a bill that will be waiting for me in the mail. While I continue to push for marginalized communities to receive access to education and care, it’s difficult when I can’t obtain this myself.

The war on immigrants and the war on women are both driven by a right-wing ideology that simultaneously dehumanizes and exploits: women as reproductive machines, immigrants as a disposable workforce. 

In a post-convention email to In These Times, NLIRH executive director Jessica González-Rojas says with guarded hope:

Too often, the voices of immigrant women have been left out of the debates on immigration and reproductive health, even though it is clear that they are the ones disproportionately impacted by these policies… Women immigrants are the backbones of their communities and their families. They're powerful, and they're using that power to demand the ability to make decisions about their bodies, their families and their futures.

Political assaults on communities of color, immigrants and women are mutually reinforcing. But these interlocking injustices reveal that none of the campaigns to overturn them will be advanced unless they’re aligned. Immigrant women don’t get to choose which battle to fight every day as they work to secure a place for themselves and their families in their adopted country. And no single fight should be privileged or waged in isolation, if the real aim is to make all these embattled communities whole. 

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.

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