We work in a field where we see some pretty tough situations. We trained a teacher nervous about teaching sex ed to a class where one of the students had been the victim in a well-known incest case. Mostly, she was afraid of the student’s father/abuser. We hear about dating abuse. We hear about teens who have babies because they think douching with bleach or Sprite prevents pregnancy. Nothing breaks our hearts more, though, than dealing with North Carolina’s Latino students. No other demographic group seems to have more stacked against them.
Yesterday, North Carolina’s new Republican leadership introduced HB 11, a bill that would prevent any undocumented student from ATTENDING a state university or community college. Right now, these students can attend at full cost – a nice source of revenue for our cash-strapped state.
I could spend a good hour typing about the unfairness of the proposed policy: how many of these students have lived here since early childhood, how they have earned their admission the same way their peers did, how they will be working alongside adult citizens and paying taxes… One of our good pregnancy prevention advocates has written an open letter to Senator Kay Hagan about this issue that expresses the emotional side better than I ever could.
I want to focus on what HB11 means for public health advocates:
If you need a public health primer: we like to focus on risk and protective factors. Risk factors are things that lead to negative outcomes (ex. drug use is a risk factor for pregnancy because being high means you’re less likely to use contraception while engaging in sex). Protective factors are things that help people cope with exposure to risk in a way that predisposes them to more positive outcomes (ex. being educated about types of contraception means you are more likely to use them).
Access to future opportunity – like being able to legally attend college – is a proven protective factor for adolescent pregnancy and other health problems. The most seminal work on teen pregnancy risk factors explicitly states: “When teens stay in school, feel connected to their schools, earn good grades, do not fall behind in school, have plans for higher education beyond high school, avoid problems in school, or do all of these, they initiate sex later and are less likely to have children.” North Carolina’s own Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention lists the importance of opportunities to achieve academic success as a protective factor. In less scientific terms, if you know you’re never going to be a doctor or a software engineer or a normal college student or a suburban soccer parent, why would you bother to try to avoid getting pregnant or an STD?
In 2009, North Carolina’s Latina teen pregnancy rate was 118 out of every 1,000 15 to 19 year old girls – more than twice the overall rate. Put another way, a Latina teen in North Carolina has a 28.7% chance of getting pregnant at least once during her high school years. This is almost an 8% greater chance than all our youth combined. And, almost 32% of Latina teens having babies have had at least one previous pregnancy.
Part of the reason our Latina rate is so high is the difference in opportunity. Yes, it’s gotten better: The Latina rate has dropped almost 20% for each of the last few years. But, HB 11 could very easily reverse that trend. Teen pregnancy already costs North Carolina taxpayers more than $312 million each year. When we have a nearly $4 billion budget deficit, we shouldn’t be making laws that’ll increase those costs.
Our immigration system is broken, and it needs fixin’. Bad. Let’s not try to fix it piecemeal by taking it out on a bunch of young people who could very easily be our future healthy, productive citizens.