by Max Soh

One of the mantras of the disability rights movement is that disability is not just a medical issue — it is a social issue as well. Think of it this way: it is not an injury or an illness that makes a person in a wheelchair disabled, but rather the building of architecture containing stairs without ramps. It is not the inability to hear that makes a deaf person disabled, but rather the lack of value given to sign language and the oversight of web developers to include proper captioning in their videos, etc.

Despite the fact that one out of seven of the world’s population live with a disability, people with disabilities (PWDs) for far too long have been and still continue to be isolated and viewed and treated as objects of pity or charity rather than human beings with rights. Thus, when a society continues to deny rights to people with disabilities, PWDs often have no choice but to leave and seek opportunities elsewhere — often one of the hardest choices a person with a disability has to make.

This is especially the case for those with a lack of resources to migrate — often leaving them no choice but to cross borders in hopes of attaining asylum. Yet, to say that the process of seeking asylum in the United States for migrants with disabilities is difficult could not be more of an understatement.

The Realities of Undocumented Migrants with Disabilities in America

The process of detaining migrants is cruel, and the process is especially cruel to migrants with disabilities. There have been numerous reports of disabled children and teens being separated from their parents and guardians by border patrol agents. The Texas Tribune, for instance, has reported on a 16 year-old with severe epilepsy and autism who was separated from his grandmother when the two of them arrived at the Santa Teresa Port of Entry in New Mexico seeking asylum. Despite passing the standard screenings, the two were quickly separated and have not seen each other in almost a year. The Outline recently reported on a mother being separated from her seven-year-old deaf and mute child after crossing the border. Though the mother was eventually provided with the location of her child, she had no means to contact him, and the child vice versa had no means of contacting her. Even if the mother was given a number to call her child, it would have made no difference as reportsshow that ICE facilities often are not only non-ADA compliant, but that they also provide no accommodations to individuals with disabilities in their facilities. While preparing this piece, I came across a story of a man who is deaf who was not only separated from his grandmother, but who was also then placed in handcuffs while he sits in detention — limiting the use of his hands which he relies on to communicate through sign language.

There are even reports of ICE facilities abusing disabled children. Earlier this year, Quartz reported that staff at the Shiloh, TX treatment center forced girls with developmental disabilities to fight for snacks. Such reports not only show the cruelty of the migrant detention process, but it is fair to say that such reports might be more ubiquitous than we think. Given that 14% of the world’s population have a disability, if we were to apply that to the approximate 40,000 individuals in immigrant detention centers at any given time (a number that includes approximately 11,000 children), that places the number of detained individuals with disabilities at approximately 5,700.

And akin to the treatment by ICE agents inside detention centers, the treatment by ICE agents outside detention centers is just as inhumane. Late last year, several media outlets began featuring the story of a ten-year-old girl named Rosamaria Hernandez whose family crossed the border from Mexico in an attempt to save Rosamaria’s life; the child was suffering complications from cerebral palsy. However, in 2017, ICE agents followed Rosamaria’s ambulance as she was on her way to gallbladder surgery, and waited outside her operating room — refusing to let medical staff close the doors while Rosamaria was being treated. After her surgery, ICE agents then pulled Rosamaria from the hospital and placed her in a detention facility for children.

While Rosamaria has since been released, it should be noted that her story is by no means unique. Reports from advocates show that many undocumented migrants with disabilities constantly live in fear of approaching agencies and services (i.e. whether for issues pertaining to housing, employment, education, healthcare, etc.) because of the fear of either having their undocumented status revealed or running into ICE agents.

Yet, this is only part of the problem. Even when undocumented immigrants with disabilities are able to avoid the cruelty of migrant detention centers and the inhumane treatment of ICE agents, they are still faced with a society that gives little thought to individuals with disabilities.

Reports show that much of American society is still constructed with little respect for the rights of the disabled. Akin to issues of race, gender, etc., the barriers that people with disabilities face are social and attitudinal — resulting in institutional discrimination and inequalities for people with disabilities.

Undocumented immigrants with disabilities thus have to not only navigate physical, social, and institutional barriers of discrimination, but they have to do so knowing that participation in amenities such as housing, education, employment, healthcare, etc. will expose them to high risks that their undocumented status will be discovered and they will be deported to a place with even worse records for upholding the rights of people with disabilities than the United States.

Cambiando Vidas

Founded almost nine years ago, Cambiando Vidas is a group based in Chicago that advocates for the rights of undocumented immigrants with disabilities. Originally intended to educate disabled members of Hispanic families on the rights of people with disabilities, the group soon expanded their work to include immigrants’ rights issues after learning about the prevalence of the number of people whom they were serving who are both disabled and undocumented.

Photo courtesy Cambiando Vidas

Cambiando Vidas organizes regular forums to raise awareness of the realities of Latinxs with disabilities, educating the public on the intersection between rights of undocumented immigrants and the rights of persons with disabilities. In addition, Cambiando Vidas also has been at the forefront of many advocacy efforts across the state of Illinois and across the country. As part of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Cambiando Vidas was a strong part of the recent efforts behind the Trust Act, a law limiting how local and state police can cooperate with federal immigration authorities within the state of Illinois. Along with the Trust Act, Cambiando Vidas has also joined other legislative efforts including pushing for the Voices of Immigrant Communities Empowering Survivors (VOICES) Act, a bill that would increase protections for survivors of sexual assault, workplace sexual violence, domestic violence, and human trafficking in Illinois, the Immigration Safe Zones Act, which would prevent individuals from being arrested and detained in public spaces (i.e. schools, hospitals, parks, etc.) within Illinois, and the Immigrant Tenant Protection Act, which will require that landlords within Illinois shall not require disclosure of, disclose, intimidate, harass, and/or evict a tenant based on a tenant’s immigration/citizenship status.

In 2015, after realizing that they were the only group in the United States intentionally advocating for the rights of individuals that are both undocumented and disabled, Cambiando Vidas organized a conference in Chicago with the aim of building partnerships. What came out of that conference was a new initiative now known as the National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities, a network that organizes an annual conference aiming to further build community and share initiatives and research at the intersection of Latinx and disability identities. Much of their work includes bringing attention to the realities of undocumented migrants with disabilities.

Image courtesy Cambiando Vidas

Moving Forward

Including the approximately 5,700 individuals with disabilities in migrant detention centers, there are approximately 1.5 million undocumented individuals in the United States who live daily with a disability (if one applies the global 1/7 average to the approximate 11 million undocumented individuals living in the United States). With a sub-population that large, Cambiando Vidas should not be the only group in the United States that intentionally includes the realities of undocumented immigrants with disabilities into the work of enhancing the rights of all immigrants.

There is a need for more immigrants’ rights groups to include disabilities in their work not only due to the fact that people with disabilities comprise the largest minority group across borders, but also due to the multi-faceted discriminatory barriers that immigrants with disabilities face to attain equal rights as outlined. Even when the fight to eliminate the use of migrant detention is won, advocates must insure that immigrants with disabilities are intentionally included and integrated into plans for alternatives to detention. Immigrants’ rights groups can begin by hiring more people with disabilities and covering stories that explicitly and intentionally include the narratives of immigrants with disabilities and by noting the specific ways various legislation will affect the sub-population known as immigrants with disabilities.

The Trump administration has shown that it will do anything to promote xenophobia and violate the rights of minorities (both of immigrants and people with disabilities), from their removal of selective enforcement, to a 2017 bill to weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act, to the Trump administration’s specific proposals to ban immigrants with disabilities in particular from coming to the States. The intersection between migration and disability has been overlooked even before the election of Trump, and by no means should this intersection be overlooked even when Trump leaves the White House, nor even if a pro-immigrant, pro-disability rights candidate takes the Oval Office. However, if there is ever a time to push a serious effort in promoting an intersectionality that includes a strong amalgam of both movements, it is now.

For more information about how to support Cambiando Vidas, contact Cambiando Vidas’ Community Development Organizer, Michelle Garcia.