TW: This article contains mentions of rape, reproductive coercion, and domestic abuse
Luisa grew up in a small, conservative town in northern Mexico, where being openly lesbian can mean a death sentence. She was about 20 years old when her mother forced her into a heterosexual marriage after finding out Luisa was in love with a woman.
“I was never happy,” she said.
Luisa, who is using a pseudonym for safety, has been married for three decades and has endured domestic violence throughout the marriage.
Luisa and her husband migrated to the U.S. 14 years ago and they now live in Tucson, Arizona. She is undocumented, doesn’t speak English, and has five children, two of whom were born in the U.S. Luisa said she loves her children, but that all of her pregnancies and births were forced. She said her husband often raped her and controlled her birth control; over the years, Luisa had four miscarriages.
“I feel guilty saying this, but it was a relief,” Luisa said. “I didn’t want to have more children with him. I felt depressed.”
Finding reproductive health resources in Arizona has been extremely difficult for people like Luisa. The chronic lack of access to reproductive healthcare has been the norm for undocumented people in Arizona and across the country—long before abortion bans were enacted and the U.S. Supreme Court gutted Roe v. Wade in June.
“Undocumented women face cultural, language, and socioeconomic challenges in trying to access reproductive healthcare,” said Imelda Esquer, the program manager at the Tucson-based YWCA Latina Leadership Institute. “The more vulnerable you are, the more risks you face.”
For years, reproductive and immigrant rights advocates have fostered networks of solidarity and support. These efforts grew as Arizona intensified its attacks on abortion rights before and after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling. In Arizona, there’s also the grim legacy of SB 1070, known as the “show me your papers” law, which allowed police to function as federal immigration officials—racially profiling and questioning community members on their immigration status. It’s always been challenging for undocumented people to access healthcare resources over fear of coming into contact with law enforcement and immigration agents during their commute or at clinics and hospitals. There are also concerns about having to provide personal information to anyone they think could then share it with federal immigration agencies.
“And that’s exactly what state violence is about, living in fear,” said Alejandra Pablos, a reproductive justice community organizer based in Arizona. Pablos has been targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in retaliation for her activism and has been in deportation proceedings for about a decade. “This trauma that’s stronger and deeper in our lives. Being in deportation proceedings, being in constant surveillance for choosing our own reproductive health. The impact that’s gonna have on our people. We don’t have a space to grieve. It’s one attack after another. The existence of ICE, police, prisons, it forces some of us to not want to parent because nobody wants to parent [under] hostile conditions … The same government that’s forcing people to be pregnant would separate me from that child.”
While for some the reality of mass surveillance, criminalization, and overpolicing barely became a concern following the overturning of Roe, undocumented, Black, Latinx and Native communities living in border states like Arizona have long been familiar with the anxiety triggered by militarization and hostile policies that target their livelihoods. These communities have also been at the forefront of resistance movements that have laid the groundwork for how to respond to these attacks.
“We have known the experience of our bodily autonomy being violated one way or another,” said Eloisa Lopez, executive director for Pro-Choice Arizona and Abortion Fund of Arizona. “This is what we’re fighting for and have been for generations, the people have always been fighting for bodily sovereignty.”
There’s still a lot of legal confusion around abortion access in Arizona. After the Dobbs ruling, most clinics suspended their services, canceling hundreds of appointments. There are two conflicting laws in the books: an abortion ban dating back to the 19th century and a measure signed into law by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in March that prohibited abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, which is scheduled to go into effect in September unless a court rules the near-total abortion ban from the 1800s takes precedent.
Abortion providers in Arizona have largely been congregated in Phoenix. These clinics also required a state ID, driver’s license, and health insurance, which undocumented people in the state don’t have access to. Medication abortions in Arizona couldn’t be prescribed through telemedicine, forcing people to travel to Phoenix or Tucson for their in-person appointments. For undocumented people living in Tucson and rural areas of southern Arizona, getting in a car and driving long distances poses an enormous risk.
Mobility is severely restricted in regions located within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, known as the “constitution free zone,” where for decades Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, and other immigration enforcement agencies have had free rein to surveil, arbitrarily stop, search, and detain people without a warrant or probable cause. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Egbert v. Boule further secured these powers.
There are also several Border Patrol checkpoints strategically positioned throughout highways in southern Arizona. Tohono O’odham and other Indigenous communities, who’ve lived in the region for centuries before that border even existed, face constant Border Patrol surveillance and harassment and are questioned on their immigration status when they’re forced to pass these checkpoints. Traveling to neighboring states like California, Nevada, Colorado, or New Mexico, where abortion is still accessible, is only an option for a few people.
“If you live in particularly militarized areas of the southern border, the potential of [being] apprehended at a checkpoint is always something that you’re going to be thinking about,” said Yvette Borja, a Tucson-based staff writer at Balls & Strikes and a former immigration attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and The Florence Project, and host of the podcast, Radio Cachimbona. The U.S.-Mexico borderlands have been known as testing grounds for surveillance and militarized policing tactics that can then be applied elsewhere. “There is a throughline between prohibiting abortion access for immigrants and now taking these policing tactics and applying them to other U.S. citizens.”
The heavy militarization of the Arizona borderlands and restrictions on reproductive and abortion care also greatly impact newly arrived asylum-seekers, who are forced to rely on human smugglers to cross through remote areas of the desert, where they’re extremely vulnerable to sexual violence from smugglers, Border Patrol, and CBP agents. ICE has said pregnant people in their custody will still have access to abortions if requested. But the agency has a disturbing record of medical neglect and abuse, including reports of sexual assaults at immigration detention centers and forced sterilizations.
Last October, the Biden administration issued guidelines directing the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, to prevent pregnant migrant children in its custody from being sent to Texas, and to facilitate the transfer of children already in Texas and who are seeking abortion out to states where there’s access to the procedure. Biden officials are reportedly working to broaden those guidelines as more states have banned abortion post-Roe. But as Borja warned, it’s hard to trust ICE and other federal agencies that have been plagued with accusations of psychological and sexual abuse and neglect with the reproductive care of people in their custody.
While the legal guidelines of abortion access are clarified in Arizona, community organizers like Lopez and Pablos continue to lead efforts to raise money for abortion funds and are on the ground informing community members of access to abortion pills and other grassroots-led reproductive health resources that are available. In Pablos’ case, she’s carrying on the work under the constant threat of deportation.
“It’s scary for me to think that somebody can knock at my door at any time,” she said.
“It’s just about us on the ground, creating spaces that are going to be caring for one another,” Pablos said. “We’re not just working around abortion rights … we want to make sure communities are safe. [We’re] starting to understand that we’re fighting the bigger enemy, which is state violence … white supremacy around our lives, our sexuality, our reproduction.”