Denni Arjona, South Texans for Reproductive Justice (STRJ) / Designed by Lara Witt

One year post-Roe is an as-told-to series led by Prism’s Editor-at-Large Tina Vásquez, marking the milestone by featuring new and veteran advocates and organizers, abortion storytellers, providers, clinic directors, abortion fund volunteers, and reproductive justice organizers. You can read the complete series here

South Texans for Reproductive Justice (STRJ) is a consummate reminder that reproductive justice is about so much more than abortion. Co-founded by siblings Melissa and Denni Arjona, STRJ keeps the Rio Grande Valley’s sizable immigrant community at the heart of much of the work and advocacy it does—and not just because this is the community they come from. The co-founders recognize that immigrants are in the crosshairs of Texas’ toxic intersection of anti-immigrant and anti-abortion laws and experience unprecedented attacks on their bodily autonomy. 

In some ways, STRJ is a needed thorn in the abortion rights movement’s side, forever reminding us that the movement is only as strong as the communities it leaves behind. Once abortion bans littered the country, it was necessary for sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice groups to focus on getting people out-of-state abortion care. However, this has also meant that millions of undocumented immigrants of reproductive age have largely been left to fend for themselves. Denni, who is also the communications director at Alabama’s Yellowhammer Fund, told Prism that because of Border Patrol checkpoints and increased border surveillance and militarization due to efforts like Operation Lone Star, traversing Texas is barely an option for undocumented Texans, never mind traveling across multiple states.

Like many reproductive justice advocates from Texas who spoke to Prism, Denni cites Senate Bill 8 as a serious turning point in the state. The 2021 law not only banned abortions after about six weeks, but put enforcement of the ban in the hands of civilians, allowing them to obtain rewards of at least $10,000 for successfully bringing lawsuits against anyone who aided or abetted abortion care. As lawmakers and the anti-abortion movement work overtime to both strip people of their rights and criminalize people who provide abortion support, Denni told Prism they are “exhausted.” Like others featured in this series, Denni is battling state violence while navigating personal tragedy. Shortly after speaking to Prism, their mother passed away. Members of STRJ are accepting donations to help the family bury their loved one.

In early June, Denni spoke to Prism about their expansive vision for reproductive justice, the dangerous ways anti-abortion fake clinics are filling gaps left behind by abortion clinics, and how painful it is to make panicked decisions about your health, future, and family. Here they are, in their own words: 

On the Texas-Mexico border, we’ve already lived in a post-Roe reality. We’ve experienced abortion bans here before, including when I started this kind of work around 2013. In those days, the silver lining was that we could refer folks to an abortion fund, or we could fundraise to help get people exactly where they needed to go. SB 8—on top of the Dobbs decision—has made things even scarier. It made us all afraid of being criminalized for doing the work we’ve always done.

South Texans for Reproductive Justice has always been clear that our vision of reproductive justice is expansive—it’s not just about abortion. It includes people who want to parent, people who want or need sexual education, and people who need access to safe sex resources. In that way, our work hasn’t changed very much. In 2021, we launched our Plan B Program with 100 doses, and since then, we’ve secured grants to keep the program going. We also distribute different kinds of condoms—like internal condoms and oral condoms, [as well as] lube, pregnancy tests, and information about [anti-abortion fake clinics]. We continue to scale up and expand to meet the needs of our community. Given the atmosphere, we anticipated an influx of pregnancies, so we also distribute diapers and wipes. As a reproductive justice organization, we want to make sure parents have what they need, even in unfortunate cases where people are now parents because they couldn’t access the abortion care they needed. 

I think the movement still has a long way to go, especially when it comes to understanding the realities of our communities. There were a few bills this legislative session that completely terrified members of our community, and these bills weren’t really acknowledged by the greater reproductive justice community. 

House Bill 20 was close to passing, and it would have created a vigilante border protection unit that allowed random people to police the border and expel anyone they suspected of being undocumented. The “vigilante abortion” law got a lot of attention, but this should have gotten attention too. We’re talking about white supremacist extremists coming to a community they’re not from and racially profiling and terrorizing immigrants or people they suspect of being immigrants—and that’s a majority of our community. The majority of our people come from mixed-status families, so a bill like this would affect everyone, including citizens who experience racial profiling. The atmosphere here is already overwhelming for undocumented people. Border Patrol is everywhere, and there are checkpoints everywhere. People in our region are already afraid to travel and seek health care because it can be risky. Now that abortion is more criminalized and accessing care requires traveling out of state, it means that more and more of our community members are being put in harm’s way—especially when agencies and extremists are empowered by the government to target immigrants. 

Texas was already a hard place for folks to get abortion care. Now the stakes are even higher, especially for immigrants. A very large percentage of our population is low-income. It’s hard for many people to leave the Rio Grande Valley, not just because of their immigration status, but because of the cost. You have to factor in the cost of child care. You have to factor in the cost of missed work days. There are also barriers like not having a [U.S. government-issued] I.D. or not speaking English. What happens if you actually make it to a clinic, and there are no staff there who can translate for you?

Who does it serve when you paint Texas as a bleak, hopeless place? Because that’s not what I see. Every day, I see how we fight back and take care of each other. That’s what gives me hope. The spirit of the Rio Grande Valley community sustains me. 

I am disappointed by how things have gone in Texas. With Alabama’s ban, the strategy in the state was to expand services so that there wasn’t a reproductive health desert just because abortion wasn’t accessible. In McAllen, Texas, Whole Woman’s Health just left the state, and it left a really big void. It was a gut punch, and we took it really, really hard. When we saw the clinic was leaving the state, it was our automatic response to try to buy the clinic, not just so the antis wouldn’t get their hands on it, but because we really envisioned a reproductive justice center. We’re not medical professionals, but we could have filled some of the gaps left behind by providing free emergency contraception, a safe place to take pregnancy tests, safe sex resources, and things like diapers, formula, menstrual supplies, and other essential supplies our community needs. Sadly, it didn’t work out that way

There are very dangerous ways that anti-abortion fake clinics have filled the gaps left behind by abortion clinics that left the state. The biggest gap that we see right now is with sonograms. The practices fake clinics use to get people in the door are very deceptive, and these places are known to mislead people about how pregnant they are. In an environment where people are being criminalized for their outcomes, I believe these are very dangerous places. Especially because people might know that the McAllen Pregnancy Center [that took over the site of Whole Women’s Health] is a fake clinic, but they still feel like it’s the only place they can go because they want a sonogram before they self-manage, or they need to know how pregnant they are before they travel out of state for care. They are willing to subject themselves to everything that comes with going to a fake clinic because they really need a sonogram, and there aren’t a lot of other places they can go.

I think for me, the thing that has been most tiring is this feeling like there’s a ticking time clock and that, at any time, your rights can be legislated away. On a personal level, I started hormone replacement therapy because of fertility issues, and I’m still not 100% certain I want to have kids. I feel like I need to explore all of my options before more options are taken from us. We know they are coming for birth control next. I don’t know if there’s a way to explain what it feels like to make big decisions about your health and future and family when you feel panicked. What if I need an abortion while I’m undergoing this process? All of this hits home for me, and personally, it’s terrifying to live in a place where you know they are coming for more of your rights.

Can Texas be a very hard place? Yes. But it’s my home. The way I view my community and the way the media portrays my community are two very different things. My frustration is the focus on poverty porn. People come here, and they want to see the most dire, destitute, and horrible conditions. They want to portray our state as an ignorant place. I fight back against that. Who does it serve when you paint Texas as a bleak, hopeless place? Because that’s not what I see. Every day, I see how we fight back and take care of each other. That’s what gives me hope. The spirit of the Rio Grande Valley community sustains me. 

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.