Increased Health Risks for Latina Women Don’t Stop at the Border

This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.

This week, health advocates and activists working to end sexual violence join in solidarity to raise awareness about the serious impact of sexual assault on women’s health, as part of National Women’s Health Week. In reflecting on this important intersection of issues, and as a survivor of sexual violence myself, I am reminded of the profound impact of sexual assault on our society, and the ways in which this impact is disproportionately borne by particular communities. Not because sexual violence is a problem that only lives in certain communities, but because people who are already marginalized often have the fewest tools and resources to allow for healing and resiliency. This includes immigrant women, many of whom are relegated by our failed immigration policies to living in shadows and silence.

In general, sexual assault is a vastly underreported crime, and data regarding immigrant women’s experiences is virtually nonexistent. However, their stories speak louder than statistics. Legal and social service providers affirm that sexual assault is a prevalent reality along the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s so frequent that immigrant women often expect it as an inevitability of the journey. In fact, some immigrant women and girls report starting contraceptive methods before migrating specifically to prepare for the possibility of rape.

The heightened risk of sexual assault doesn’t stop at the border. For those who are apprehended and detained in immigration detention centers, sexual assault remains an all-too-common threat. According to a Human Rights Watch report, over 200 cases of sexual assault were reported in detention facilities between 2009 and 2011. As sexual assault is a severely underreported crime, we can assume that the number of assaults is actually much higher. Additionally, the report found that invasive strip searches without consent are common, as are the presence of guards during private medical examinations. These practices doubtless leave detainees feeling violated and re-traumatized.

Beyond the walls of detention centers, immigrant women living without status remain particularly vulnerable to interpersonal violence and abuse, as abusers may exploit immigration status or silence survivors with threats of deportation.

Whether in the immediate aftermath of sexual assault, or even years later, surviving sexual assault often leads to the need for sexual and reproductive, as well as mental and other health services. As a former rape crisis counselor, and survivor, I know how important and empowering it is for survivors to have options. Those options should always include (but not be limited to) STI and HIV screening, prophylaxis, and treatment, pregnancy testing, contraceptive services and counseling, abortion services and counseling, mental health screening and treatment, pre-natal and pregnancy related care, and other care necessary for the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being and healing of survivors. When access to this needed health care is blocked by high costs, discriminatory refusals by providers, or harmful and restrictive policies, survivors and our families suffer.

The experiences of sexual assault survivors can provide a lens through which to examine the cracks in our nation’s flawed healthcare system and immigration policies and practices. We all need access to quality and affordable healthcare in order to be strong and resilient — though immigrant women are largely locked out of opportunities to obtain health care and coverage. The systematic barriers to achieve good health affect us all; however, the harm is often magnified for sexual assault survivors who seek health treatment and services under incredibly difficult circumstances.

Across the country, Latina immigrants’ health is severely compromised under our current healthcare system. U.S. healthcare policies exclude immigrants from participating in the healthcare system their tax dollars already support. These restrictions on immigrant access to healthcare, in addition to lack of access to employer-sponsored coverage, mean that Latinas have the highest uninsured rate of any race or ethnic group, which impacts their ability to access quality and affordable healthcare options. For many Latina immigrants the only option for healthcare services is through women’s health clinics that don’t require insurance or proof of immigration status. However, state-level anti-choice policies have closed many clinics, leaving our Latina sisters without healthcare options.

Fortunately, we’re working to dismantle these barriers so that all people who need health care services, including sexual assault survivors, will be able to access this care. At the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) — the only national reproductive justice organization dedicated to building Latina power to advance health, dignity, and justice for the 26 million Latinas, their families, and communities — we fight for access to quality and affordable healthcare for all Latinas, our families, and our communities. Over the years, we’ve worked to ensure that emergency contraception is available over the counter, expand health insurance coverage, and improve the healthcare standards in detention centers.

Right now, we’re working closely with Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (NM-01) and dozens of allies to advance HR 4240 — the Health Equity and Access under the Law (HEAL) for Immigrant Women and Families Act. This bill would remove political interference and restore coverage so that immigrants can participate in the healthcare programs their tax dollars already support. Additionally, we continue to work to improve the healthcare standards in detention centers, and to reduce the harms of detention and deportation overall. Part of this is to ensure that abortion services are made more accessible and affordable for people in detention that need them.

There are many factors that affect a woman’s health and wellbeing after a sexual assault. Immigrant Latinas often experience additional barriers to good health after a sexual assault, including their immigration status, geography, and income. It’s time to extend our collective efforts against sexual assault to include our immigrant sisters, so that salud, dignidad, y justicia (health, dignity and justice) can be a reality for all.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with National Women’s Health Week, May 11-17. Read all posts in the series here. To learn more, please visit

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