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In recent months, through the chaos and devastation of a deadly global pandemic, an economic recession, and endemic police violence, the daily news cycle has become the source of unending feelings of rage and sadness, and provokes a constant sense of urgency. Last week, we learned about a whistleblower’s report that immigrant women detained by ICE have been subjected to forced sterilizations in a Georgia detention center.  

As a Latina reproductive justice advocate, I was horrified, but not shocked. State-sanctioned, forced sterilizations targeting immigrant women—many of whom were Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC)—have been violently normalized throughout our nation’s history. Reproductive oppression, the coordinated and institutionalized attacks on the health and bodily autonomy of Latinas/x families and communities persists to this day—not just through forced sterilizations, but also systemic racism, violence, and neglect in the health system that have led to Latinx folks and immigrants facing the highest rates of COVID-19 infection and death.

Both in and out of ICE facilities, Latinx folks face a high risk of COVID-19 infection and death. A recent report in The New York Times showed Latinx people are more than three times more likely to contract COVID-19 than white people, and twice as likely to die. Recent reporting has also shown alarming racial disparities in the pandemic’s impact on pregnancy and maternal health—including higher maternal mortality rates for Latinas/xs. Nationwide, Latina mothers make up nearly half of COVID-19 cases among pregnant women, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since the start of the pandemic, there have already been documented cases of Latinas dying from COVID-19 after giving birth.

BIPOC, and especially Latinx folks, face higher rates of exposure to COVID-19 because they are more likely to be essential workers, more likely to live in crowded homes where social distancing is impossible, and are often forced to work without adequate wages, paid sick leave, and health care. In fact, data from the U.S. Census Bureau found that one in four low-income Latinas are uninsured. Latinas have also been hit disproportionately hard by job losses resulting from the pandemic, as well as inaccessible child care, language barriers, restrictions on public transit, and new barriers to reach medical care. Racial inequities in the economy and labor force exist in tandem with racial inequities in the healthcare system—both can be deadly, and both are rooted in denying immigrants and Latinx folks their humanity.  

The harsh realities of the pandemic’s impact on Latinx folks aren’t separate from the recent reports of ICE’s abuses of immigrants, but are deeply connected by white supremacy and systemic racism. This alarming, white supremacist trend mirrors history: From 1909 to 1979, across the U.S. and the countries it occupies, more than 60,000 people were sterilized as a result of eugenics laws, and more than 20,000 of those people were sterilized in the state of California alone. Eugenics and forced sterilization programs were not only entirely legal in 32 states during this time period, but were often federally funded.

Forced sterilization programs specifically targeted Black women, Latinas/xs, immigrant women, women of color, poor women, unmarried mothers, and women with disabilities. In the state of California, these laws were often specifically driven by anti-Mexican prejudice and xenophobia.

Here in the U.S., and especially in California, the racist, xenophobic legacy of eugenics persists, through not just efforts to deny Latinas/xs their right to parent, but also to deny their right to not parent. This agenda of reproductive oppression assumes many forms, including not just forced sterilizations at ICE facilities, but also state and federal laws that push abortion care, contraception, and other essential sexual and reproductive health care out of reach for people who are struggling financially, who are more likely to be immigrants and BIPOC. In recent years, we’ve also witnessed the Trump administration block detained, undocumented minors’ access to abortion care as an extension of its aggressive agenda of xenophobia and misogyny, and denying Black and brown women autonomy over their lives and futures. 

Attacks on reproductive health care that disproportionately harm Latinas/xs and immigrant women carry a long-term and even deadly impact. In California, Latinas have reported experiencing discrimination during childbirth, and feeling unsupported in their reproductive decision-making. Across the country, Latinas/xs have a maternal mortality rate that is almost double the rate of white women. Language barriers, immigration concerns, lack of representation among health providers, and lack of insurance coverage all contribute to these deadly outcomes—and all are a product of white supremacy.

The whistleblower who reported the sterilizations at Irwin County Detention Center also reported that detained immigrants were denied essential medical care, and routinely endangered and exposed to COVID-19. Staff at the facility who were symptomatic or had COVID-19 were still required to work, and the virus was permitted to potentially spread throughout the facility without any protections for detained immigrants. In facilities across the country, ICE has reportedly been undercounting COVID-related deaths. And it’s not just ICE facilities—across the country, Latinx folks are continuously failed by the government through racist and classist barriers to medical care, and certainly reproductive care.

In context with the racist impact of the pandemic on Latinx communities, forced sterilizations at ICE facilities aren’t shocking. These behaviors at immigrant detainment centers reflect a long history of violent efforts to deny immigrants and Latinx folks their full humanity, from the disparate impact of the pandemic on Latinx communities, to racist barriers to medical care and economic security that have deliberately left Latinx families behind for years. It’s critical that we recognize these abuses as one of many pieces of a greater system of oppression meant to deny Latinas/xs care and bodily autonomy.

Laura Jiménez

Laura Jiménez is the executive director of California Latinas for Reproductive Justice.