Last week calls from Texas began flooding into a national abortion assistance hotline with Spanish-language operators: One woman called afraid to fly to New Mexico because of her immigration status. Another woman said she would have to keep her pregnancy because she feared deportation if she crossed state lines. A third worried that she would be detained by immigration authorities if she used public transportation to travel.
Penelope DiAlberto, a regional case manager for Texas at the National Abortion Federation, said the three women were among a massive spike in calls to their hotline on the Friday and Saturday after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that had recognized women’s constitutional right to abortion.
While concerns are rising among many women in the wake of the ruling, women with uncertain immigration status face additional barriers and everyone from abortion providers to U.S. government agencies have been scrambling to determine what will happen going forward.
Thirteen states passed laws that aimed to trigger full or partial bans to abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, radically reshaping access to abortion across the country.
The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has pledged to defend the rights of women to travel to other states for medical care.
But women without legal immigration status are more likely to face difficulties crossing state lines to access abortions if the procedure is banned where they live, said Lupe Rodriguez, executive director of the New York-based advocacy organization the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.
Several states with so-called “trigger” laws – such as Texas, Arizona and Florida – have large immigrant populations but do not allow people without legal status to get a driver’s license, according to a 2021 report by the National Immigration Law Center.
The U.S. Border Patrol maintains a network of some 110 checkpoints along U.S. roads, the majority of which are located 25 to 100 miles (40-160 km) inland of the country’s borders. Fear of being caught at an immigration checkpoint and possibly being deported makes it “virtually impossible” for many people living in the country illegally to travel across state lines, Rodriguez said.
TRAPPED IN CUSTODY
Biden officials are exploring ways to provide abortion access for pregnant women and girls in U.S. immigration custody in states with bans, four U.S. officials who requested anonymity to discuss the government plans told Reuters.
Many federal shelters for unaccompanied children apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border are located in Texas, where a Republican-backed law that went into effect in September banned abortions at six weeks.
For the past nine months, U.S. health officials have been flying or driving minors from Texas shelters to other states for abortions. Advocates say more guidance is needed now, and fast.
“Time is really of the essence when someone needs access to abortion,” said Brigitte Amiri, deputy director at the American Civil Liberties Union’s reproductive freedom project.
Federal judges in several states have halted the bans, but confusion reigns as the legal wrangling continues.
A 27-year-old woman from Honduras who now lives in Texas, and asked to withhold her name for privacy reasons, said she lost her student visa after she dropped out of college following the stress of an abortion she got in 2015. Now that she has no legal status in the United States, she said, she wouldn’t know what to do if she found herself with an unwanted pregnancy again. “In the position I am now, not having my papers, why would I risk myself?” she said.