On Thursday afternoon, activist Alejandra Pablos ― my friend ― will stand up in court and wait for a judge to decide the fate of her freedom. Ale, as her friends and loved ones call her, was taken into custody by ICE and has been detained in Arizona for the last 42 days.
Ale lost her green card and was put in line for deportation after a 2011 arrest and conviction on several charges including driving under the influence. She spent two years in Eloy Detention Center in Southern Arizona.
This January, Ale, a dedicated reproductive justice and immigrant rights organizer, was leading chants at a peaceful protest outside Department of Homeland Security offices in Virginia when DHS agents detained her. She was released the next day, but when she arrived at a mandatory check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Tucson on March 7, she was taken into custody and not allowed to pay bond.
I met Ale in 2017 through our activism with the National Network of Abortion Funds. When we first met, she told me how her family came to the United States from Mexico, and how her undocumented status shaped her decision to have an abortion in 2017. The Trump administration’s plans to increase deportations of undocumented immigrants, and to separate families to do so, made becoming a mother an unacceptable risk for her.
“When I became pregnant, I knew the current political situation would devastate the family I would create,” Ale said in a Roe v. Wade anniversary press call. She pointed out the perverse contradiction of “pro-life” politicians also favoring harsh immigration laws. “The same people who would force me to continue my pregnancy are the same people who would rip my baby from my arms and deport me because of my immigration status.”
“The people who would force me to continue my pregnancy are the same people who would rip my baby from my arms and deport me.”
Ale taught me that the fight for reproductive justice is more expansive than defending abortion rights. It includes many other issues ― like housing affordability, health care for incarcerated people and the impact of reproductive health policy on the LGBTQ community.
It also includes immigration.
Ale knew what it was like to be a child separated from her mother, and when she became pregnant as she was facing deportation, she didn’t want to risk putting her future child in the same traumatic situation. She decided to have an abortion.
Unlike Ale, I am an American citizen. As a white woman born in the United States, my citizenship is largely unearned. I’ve never had to prove to anyone that I belong here. I’ve never had anyone question my Midwestern accent or inquire where I’m really from. It can be hard for white people to see beyond their circumstances — and until I met Ale, I was guilty of that.
When I had an abortion, it was because I wasn’t ready to start a family. And while I had to clear a number of hurdles to get access to care, I never considered the possibility that I’d be incarcerated or deported, my child taken from me. That’s a privilege I enjoyed as a citizen.
When Ale talks about her pregnancy and her abortion, she tells a very different story.
“When I first found out I was pregnant, I was conflicted,” she once told me. “For a minute or two I smiled at the idea of being a mother. I quickly had a reality check and knew I couldn’t start a family here, right now. I do not want to be a mother, because families are under attack.”
“If a woman cannot become a mother without enduring the fear of being forcibly separated from her child, she does not have access to justice.”
Listening to her story, I began to see the ties between reproductive justice and immigrant justice. Put simply, if people are not able to create the families that they want, with the expectation of safety and security, then they do not have access to justice. If a woman cannot become a mother without enduring the fear of being forcibly separated from her child, she does not have access to justice.
The racial disparities in our criminal justice system are a reproductive justice issue too. That becomes clear when you compare how Ale was punished for driving under the influence and how I was punished when I did the same.
In 2014, I too was arrested for driving while drunk. I had just turned 21 and it was a mistake I’ll always regret. But I’ve realized how lucky I was: No one was hurt, and the officer who arrested me was kind and caring ― and lenient. He never reported the open container or marijuana in my car. He didn’t tow my car, which saved me hundreds of dollars. And instead of going to jail, I had my license suspended, got six months’ probation, entered a treatment program, and paid fines.
I got a second chance.
For the same offense, Ale spent two years in ICE detention and was stripped of her green card. For three years, I thought I endured harsh consequences for my actions; like many white folks, and citizens, I had no sense of how much worse it could have been had I been a woman of color or an immigrant.
It’s easy for many of us, especially white allies, to read about the horrors of our immigration system in the paper and continue on with our days, because they largely don’t impact us. But that’s the problem.
We need to address societal problems like mass deportations not just because they impact us, but because they are human rights violations happening on our nation’s soil. We need to be honest about how our nation’s criminal justice system treats white people and people of color differently.
This is what reproductive justice is all about — understanding how race, class, immigration status and other marginalized identities impact our access to health care and education and housing. How those identities shape our chance at a good life. How they determine who gets a second chance and who doesn’t.
I call myself a reproductive rights activist. I fight to ensure people have healthy pregnancies, births, abortions and adoptions, as well as access to contraception. But those of us who are committed to reproductive rights must fight just as hard for all people, citizens or not, to be able to keep the families they create intact and within the United States.
When I heard in March that Ale had been detained by ICE, I felt sick. Watching our immigration system devastate my friend’s life and the life of her family makes me feel helpless. But I am not helpless. I have a voice, and as a citizen I can speak out. I can continue to highlight the privilege that white supremacy affords someone like me.
For a long time, it was invisible to me, but now I know: That privilege makes the difference between feeling safe starting a family and fearing having your family ripped apart. It makes the difference between a slap on the wrist and begging a judge to spare you from deportation. It makes all the difference in the world.
Update: Pablos was released from detention on an $8,000 bond Thursday after organizers rallied at her court appearance and submitted over 20,000 signatures demanding her release.
Holly Bland is an abortion storyteller with We Testify, a leadership program of the National Network of Abortion Funds.