Burke Bindbeutel, University of Missouri School of Law
Last week, at a trial in a federal courthouse, I got to observe the effects of immigration policy on the human body’s dignity. If it does nothing else, reproductive justice limits what our government can force upon our bodies–the sources of our most fundamental autonomy. The people I saw in court came north to live by their sweat, and their bodily presence on this side of the Rio Grande was enough to have them rounded up and caged. Although it was chilling to witness the deprivation, I was heartened by the response of the court to the human need.
A fellow Mizzou law student and I dispatched to the borderlands during our spring break. In Del Rio, Texas we caught an episode of the fast-paced human drama known as Operation Streamline. Nine out of eleven Border Patrol sectors along the U.S.-Mexico border have opted to criminally prosecute unlawful migrants. Instead of the consequence-free administrative process favored by California, where Mexican migrants are released at the border, Streamline ensures a criminal record for the migrants. If they attempt to return to the United States, their offense could land them two years in jail.
Sixty-two defendants pled guilty and were sentenced in less than an hour. Just as the blisteringly fast proceeding ended, the prisoners complained that they had not received clean clothes or showers during their five-day incarceration. Inadequate hygienic services probably did not outrage the prisoners. They had already endured a difficult journey, some of them from as far as El Salvador. If clandestine train-hopping across a war zone didn’t deter them, then they probably don’t mind going without soap. But it’s incumbent on the judicial system that removes people en masse to provide basic dignities, which are just as necessary due process of law.
I thought of our work with LSRJ when one of the two women being sentenced told the judge that she needed to tomar pastillas para mi embarazo. The girl couldn’t have weighed ninety pounds. She was sitting out in the public benches due to space constraints, and from where I was sitting I couldn’t see her shackles, so I thought she was there to watch, like I was. But she was a pregnant border-crosser who had politely asked for pills to relieve morning sickness. Pregnancy has always seemed an unimaginable servitude to me, and here was this woman, barely more than a girl, wading across the Rio Grande by moonlight and imagining a better home for her kid than war-torn Mexico.
Our constitution’s guarantee of birthright citizenship has been rebranded as a loophole for the offensively-coined “anchor babies.” Because people born on American soil are citizens regardless of their parents’ status, the anti-immigration lobby has detected an incentive for poor and pregnant people to decamp for their child’s birth.
It’s true that free trade policies combined with porous borders have encouraged mass migration. Perhaps if the United States were to curtail the opportunity for fresh arrivals to plant roots in our country, we could avoid having to deal with pregnant prisoners. Senator John Kyl advocates repeal of birthright citizenship. But I don’t think that would strike at the root of the problem of massive inequality in the border region. The border divides north from south, but it also divides rich and poor. Even if the U.S. won’t provide this woman a hospital bed, it ought to at least see that the basic needs of her body are attended to.
Concerns that so-called “aliens” have compromised hospital services are misplaced. In rural Texas, hospital care’s availability suffers from poor regulation and exploitative insurance companies. Blaming opportunists distracts from the systemic problems in our health system. It’s similar to those who blame the struggles of an unequal and financially strapped education system on a few freeloaders.
Reproductive justice will exist when people can “decide whether, when and how to have and parent children, with dignity, free from discrimination, coercion or violence.” It’s a sign of an unresponsive immigration policy when prospective mothers risk life and limb for a chance the chance to safely deliver. In Del Rio, the judge assured the prisoner that she would receive medical attention, but for the dozens more defendants on the next day’s Streamline docket, there are no guarantees.