The Lower Rio Grande Valley is one of the poorest regions in the United States. Tucked on the southwestern edge of Texas, running along the Mexico border, it has disproportionately high rates of poverty and uninsurance within a state that doesn’t have very positive health outcomes to begin with. It’s home to multiple colonias — a term for isolated border communities that aren’t technically considered to be municipalities in Texas. The people living in colonias typically lack basic services like electricity, sanitation systems, paved roads, and safely constructed housing units.
The mainstream media coverage of Texas — which has increased over the past several months, as the state’s abortion policies have made national headlines — doesn’t often delve into the regional issues that are specific to the Rio Grande. But it’s impossible to illustrate the full impact of the Lone Star State’s recent push to legislate reproductive health care without honing in on the people who live there. Many of the clinics that are being forced to close under Texas’ new abortion restrictions are concentrated in the Rio Grande region, putting an outsized strain on a community that already has very specific barriers to health care.
That’s why two women’s health organizations, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the Center for Reproductive Rights, collaborated to release a new report about the pressing health care needs in the Rio Grande. They interviewed nearly 200 women in the region, collecting the stories that often get lost in the media’s focus on Wendy Davis and 20-week abortion bans. “Collectively, the women’s narratives tell a bleak story,” the report notes. “Our findings reveal widespread violations of women’s rights.”
Jessica González-Rojas, the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, points out that it’s important to give those stories a platform because talking about Texas isn’t always the same thing as talking about the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
“It’s very different from the rest of Texas,” she explained in an interview with ThinkProgress. “It’s a very, very rural community. One of the biggest barriers to reproductive care and justice is transportation. Many people don’t own a car. Even if they do, the gas is so expensive — and to get anywhere, you have to drive a really long distance.”
When Texas first began slashing family planning funding in 2011, and the women’s health care network began to fray, a lot of the activism in the Rio Grande Valley focused on organizing bus trips to transport residents to the nearest clinics. But González-Rojas says that program has been halted. Under the state’s new omnibus anti-abortion law, which officially took effect at the beginning of this month, those clinics aren’t accepting patients anymore.
And as the number of surrounding clinics continues to shrink, the waiting lists at the remaining locations continue to grow. González-Rojas noted that it can take up to six months for women to get in to see a health care professional — and not just for abortion appointments, but also for basic preventative care like Pap smears and birth control. Even when they do get in the door, they can’t always afford to pay for the services they’re told they need. “They’re essentially barred from health care,” González-Rojas pointed out.
One of the women interviewed for the project, Isabel, had an abnormal Pap smear. The clinic told her she needed to undergo more testing to see if she had uterine cancer — but she couldn’t afford to pay for that, so she canceled those follow-up appointments. Another woman, Mayda, has been waiting for years to be able to afford a mammogram after nurses found unusual lumps in her breast. Esmeralda used to get free birth control from a Planned Parenthood clinic, but after it was forced to shut down, she stopped using contraception and gave birth to a third child even though she could “barely afford to make ends meet.” Lorena has gone five years without a Pap test and is starting to get worried, but she just doesn’t have the money.
And it’s not just financial barriers or long waiting lists preventing these women from seeking out affordable family planning services in other parts of the state — although that’s obviously a big part of it. Often, they’re also too afraid.
“Immigration enforcement has created a climate of fear in that community,” González-Rojas explained to ThinkProgress. “Even for women who are legal permanent residents, who have status, it’s still a climate of fear. When the border patrol is out, they stay home.”
The Rio Grande community includes undocumented immigrants, legal permanent residents, and U.S. citizens. A little over half of the women interviewed for the new report fell into the last two categories. But those people are impacted by this culture of fear, too. They still don’t want to encounter immigration officials. For instance, one of the closest abortion clinics to the Rio Grande Valley is located 235 miles away in San Antonio, but the trip there involves going through a border check — something many of these women, whether they’re undocumented or not, refuse to do. Similarly, although some Texas residents seek out cheaper medical care across the border in Mexico, that’s too risky for many of the residents of the Rio Grande. They’re worried that if they cross the border, they won’t be able to make it back.
Telling these women’s stories is the first step. Then, González-Rojas explained, it’s time to push for real policy change. “There are multiple levels of activism happening,” she told ThinkProgress.
Organizers are doing health education and advocacy, but they’re also mobilizing the residents of the Rio Grande Valley to lobby their lawmakers for a better health care infrastructure. They want Texas lawmakers to expand the Medicaid program to extend health coverage to additional low-income people, restore state funding for family planning programs, repeal the law that prevents state dollars from going to abortion providers, and commit to forming initiatives like mobile clinic services that can address health care needs in Texas’ rural communities.
On Tuesday, a group of women went to the statehouse to make their voices heard. Over the next six months, they’ll target other cities in Texas, and they’re also planning a trip to Washington, DC to discuss these issues with national legislators. There’s also big push to turn out the vote among the legal residents of the Rio Grande area.
The women of the Lower Rio Grande Valley may have bleak stories, but they aren’t giving up. “They’re very proud of where they live, and they want to make their community better,” González-Rojas pointed out.