Russell Pearce, the Arizona Senator who pushed the “Support Our Law Enforcement” immigration bill (known in Arizona as SB 1070), complains about the automatically-given U.S. citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants. “This is an orchestrated effort by [illegal aliens] to come here and have children to gain access to the great welfare state we’ve created,” he huffed.
Doesn’t Pearce’s comment sound eerily similar to that of this Southern legislator, pre-civil rights movement? “In 1958, Mississippi state representative David H. Glass introduced a bill mandating sterilization for any unmarried mother who gave birth to another illegitimate child. Glass explained that his objective was to reduce the number of Black children on welfare: …‘The negro woman, because of child welfare assistance, [is] making it a business, in some cases of giving birth to illegitimate children.’”
Pearce, probably feeling empowered by SB 1070’s semi-success (or at least its public support), is working on a controversial plan to “push for an Arizona bill that would refuse to accept or issue a birth certificate that recognizes citizenship to those born to illegal aliens, unless one parent is a citizen”. Perhaps also inspired by the anti-immigrant fervor, Senators John Kyl and Lindsey Graham are proposing that the U.S. Senate review the Citizenship Clause of the 14th amendment. The idea of withholding citizenship to children born of undocumented parents goes back to 1991 when Elton Gallegly proposed the idea to the California congress, followed by several other unsuccessful attempts.
Birthright citizenship is said to reward illegality and encourage procreation for the purpose of accessing the privileges the U.S. has to offer, such as welfare. The underlying attitudes follow an ongoing pattern of attacks on the reproductive freedom of women of color. This is all part of an effort to contain, exclude, and criminalize undocumented immigrants–specifically women due to their reproductive potential. Appealing to Americans’ sense of being cheated, the topic of welfare has been used politically with hidden racial motives. People of color and immigrants have been criminalized even though immigrants’ draw on public services is insubstantial. The topic of overpopulation draws on white Americans’ fear of being outnumbered or overpowered and has been used to control women’s fertility, especially restricting the reproductive freedom of women of color in the U.S and internationally. The problems of poverty and environment are said to necessitate the containment of certain populations, while in actuality the major perpetrators of these problems seek to limit the self-determination of targeted populations to continue to profit off them and their resources.
Birthright citizenship takes on the issue of who belongs—no matter their contribution, and no matter how their country of origin has been impacted, to the benefit of the United States . “Attacks on legal and illegal immigrants’ rights to public services…are all targeted at immigrant women’s ability to have and raise children. As Dorothy Roberts notes, ‘The value we place on individuals determines whether we see them as entitled to perpetuate themselves in their children. Denying someone the right to bear children—or punishing her for exercising that right—deprives her of a basic part of her humanity. When this denial is based on race, it also functions to preserve a racial hierarchy.’”
Race and Welfare
Pearce claims that the use of welfare by undocumented immigrants and their children is a reason for limiting access to citizenship for children born in the U.S. despite the fact that “Many studies have found no significant causal relationship between welfare benefits and childbearing. Although there are various reasons more migrants settle in the U.S. now compared to the more seasonal coming and going of the past, increased border security has been a main reason for the difficulty to cross, causing many to just stay and have their families join them. “Immigrant women of color and their children are targeted because of white anxieties about a racially pluralized society. Whereas Mexican immigrant men have been perceived as temporary laborers, the presence of Mexican women and children suggests permanence…”
Another Mississippi representative in the time period of David H. Glass quoted in the introduction, said of the motivations to withhold welfare from Black people, “When the cutting starts, they’ll head for Chicago .” It is interesting how this parallels with the objective of FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform) and collaborators like Russell Pearce to implement “attrition through enforcement”, which, significantly, was written into the Support Our Law Enforcement Act (SB1070) as the purpose of the law. Attrition entails making it so difficult to live here (the U.S. or Arizona specifically) that the targeted population “chooses” to leave. This has been an increasingly common tactic given that physically deporting all the undocumented would be extremely difficult, while causing migrants to self-deport would perhaps go more smoothly and in the meantime the police state can be strengthened. Attrition through enforcement involves increasing the powers of police to ask about immigration status, thereby increasing the number of arrests and deportations and the fear that spreads to others at risk for deportation, causing them to leave (which has been somewhat successful in Arizona ).
This is nothing very new. Earlier laws like California ’s Prop 187 and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act were designed to restrict access to basic needs provided by welfare in order to cause migrants to leave. This, in addition to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996 reveal that in fact there isn’t much of a welfare state in the first place.
Welfare is a hot-button issue; useful in rallying citizens who feel cheated out of their tax dollars. In fact, it is likely that the dubious statistics given by Elton Gallegly in 1991 related to his anti-birthright citizenship crusade largely contributed to the fact that, “By the time California’s Proposition 187 appeared on the 1994 ballot, arguments about immigrants’ use of public services were commonplace.” Because of the media and political forces, to many, especially white people, welfare conjures images of lazy people of color undeservingly benefiting from handouts, even though most people on welfare are white.
Russell Pearce loves to repeat the incoherent phrase, “Illegal is not a race, it is a crime,” in response to accusations of racism. While it’s not worth scrutinizing “Illegal…is a crime”, “illegal” does imply race. Likewise, “‘Welfare’ has become a code word for ‘race.’ People can avoid the charge of racism by directing their vitriol at the welfare system instead of explicitly assailing Black people,” or in the case of border states in the last couple decades, immigrants from south of the border as well. I argue, as others have, that the connection between crime (or ‘illegal’) and race goes back to slavery era, but ironically the end of slavery in particular. The 13th amendment reads, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States …” (my emphasis) which gave incentives to Southern businesses to have Black people convicted of crimes such as vagrancy.
As can be seen from these examples and examples below, the treatment received by immigrants, particularly from south of the border, is similar to the treatment seen by Black people. Although Latino/Hispanic people are often categorized as white, the way people are treated (criminalized and/or deemed parasites) has more to do with race than a clearly-defined racial or ethnic boundary (race is not biologically based, but socially constructed). Pearce denies that his concerns about so-called “anchor babies” have anything to do with race, yet “anchor baby” is as racially charged as “illegitimate child” or “crack baby”, especially in relation to language around welfare.
Dorothy Roberts wrote that the welfare system “was never intended to end poverty, let alone provide adequate subsistence for the poor.” Mimi Abramovitz added, “Enacted in 1935, when capital accumulation, patriarchal authority, and reproduction of the labor force, as well as the overall social peace, were threatened by the collapse of the economy, the rise of working class militancy, and destabilization of the family system, the Social Security Act institutionalized the role of the state in maintaining families, the labor force, and the general welfare of society. While this is important, the way the story about welfare is told versus the way it plays out is more telling about the motivations of the story-tellers who are interested in excluding and containing migrant populations.
In recent decades, women of color have been associated with welfare and continuously attacked for their alleged abuse of it. However, their vulnerability to exploitation renders them cheap labor. Mothers who are considered worthy can either afford to stay at home or to have their household duties such as childcare taken care of by migrant women, whom are considered unworthy mothers (unworthy also, of a living wage, as white women’s unwillingness to organize with nannies and maids illustrates). In Disposable Domestics, Grace Chang writes, “[Immigrant women workers’] labor—caring for the young, elderly, sick, and disabled—makes possible the maintenance and reproduction of the American labor force at virtually no cost to the US government. At the same time, this labor is extracted in such a way as to make immigrant women’s sustenance of their own families nearly impossible.” The cost she is referring to is very specific, but we must not overlook the cost to the US government (rather, the taxpayers) where it involves the criminalization of migrants to maintain this economic and social structure. I argue that the attacks on birthright citizenship are part of this effort.
Criminalized migrants can be coerced into working in intolerable conditions and for low wages due to the threat of arrest and/or deportation. This criminalization of migrants (which costs billions of dollars throughout each branch of government) is, in effect, welfare, hand-outs, or subsidization for the wealthier classes so they can make even more money and be better consumers. This is aside from the other subsidies, tax breaks, etc., which accounts for more than four times the amount spent on welfare for the poor, much less for undocumented immigrants.
Because certain wealthy individuals and businesses—particularly in the service industry which cannot be outsourced—don’t want a total absence of migrants, here lies an interesting clash between the racists and those who employ migrants (not that the two are mutually exclusive). As somewhat of a compromise, criminalization is more likely intended to maintain a permanent underclass, though perhaps at a smaller number (a guest-worker program is another desired arrangement to accomplish this). Racism, and the more nuanced nativism that perhaps better describes the attitudes about undocumented immigrants, benefit businesses who wish to exploit all workers, by keeping people from uniting. Racists/nativists like Pearce may be conscious actors in this scheme, but more likely just a product of it, so he probably won’t back off until Arizona is truly free of undocumented immigrants and their kids. Nevertheless, in the meantime the criminalization of migrants continues to benefit capitalism overall.
Since the reality is that the cost of social services to immigrants is insubstantial, clearly those who complain about undocumented immigrants on welfare aren’t interested so much in saving money or withholding incentives for migration and reproduction. But yet their version of the story about welfare functions well to rouse popular (white) support for the criminalization and exclusion of people of color. Raising the welfare issue in relation to birthright citizenship serves to justify these true intentions.
“Race Suicide”, Population, and Reproductive Choice
With the white birthrate in the early 1900’s rapidly declining, president Roosevelt warned (white) Americans of “race suicide” (echoed by Nixon later) and actually called white women who were unwilling to procreate “race criminals”.
It is likely that this sort of anxiety played a role in fueling the “pro-life” movement and anti-gay sentiment, which resonates with religious fundamentalists in a politically useful way. Hours after California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage was declared unconstitutional, Michael Savage went on a brief tirade on his radio show about the lower birthrates of nations that allow gay marriage .
The desire to control women’s sexuality and reproduction harkens back at least to the era of the witch hunts, when capitalism’s beginning in Europe demanded more workers (partly due to population crisis as a result of disease), which led to the construction of monogamous heterosexual marriage as natural through the forced dependence of women on men, and criminalization of sexual acts that were not for the purpose of reproduction.
An already-existing gender hierarchy led to the reining in of women’s bodies, but the development of capitalism, then the desire to protect the white race later on, and then the ongoing attempt to keep women in their place continually prompted control over women’s bodies and roles. Putting significance on the biological and social differences between men and women benefits capitalism in much the same way as the divisions between races continue to benefit capitalism and the state, by keeping people from uniting and rebelling. The lines drawn between people by nativist, nationalist, and white supremacist notions fuel fears of being outnumbered by outsiders. Women are targeted because of their reproductive potential, but their treatment is different depending on their race.
We can see within the anti-immigrant movement the concern over women’s reproductive freedom and its relationship to race. In an article called “Aborting and Importing—Is Immigration the Replacement for Native Born Population?” the Arizona-based author writes, “Unlike any culture in history, we are aborting our children. Have we bought into the Self-Hate so much that we are committing a protracted national and cultural suicide? …Consider once again that we are aborting our native born population and importing their replacements… Unchecked immigration is no substitute for a healthy birthrate.”
While many oppose abortion because it leads to the death of what they call “our culture”, some promote abortion as part of the population control movement. This movement attempts to solve overpopulation, often justifying it as a necessary effort to save the environment, but focuses on populations of color without saying so. We can see right through John Tanton, who says he specifically got involved several decades ago with Planned Parenthood to make his “contribution to the conservation movement” (although he apparently felt it didn’t go far enough). The propaganda campaign against undocumented immigrants has been a decades-long effort that can all be tied to Tanton. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “[Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), Center for Immigration Studies (CIS)], and Numbers USA are all part of a network of restrictionist organizations conceived and created by John Tanton, the ‘puppeteer’ of the nativist movement and a man with deep racist roots… He has met with leading white supremacists, promoted anti-Semitic ideas, and associated closely with the leaders of a eugenicist foundation… He has made a series of racist statements about Latinos and worried that they were outbreeding whites. At one point, he wrote candidly that to maintain American culture, ‘a European-American majority’ is required. He and his organizations have influenced and financially supported various individuals and initiatives, including Russell Pearce and SB 1070.
It came to someone’s attention not so long ago that a few US-based doctors were advertising in Mexico about their obstetrics services. In an article about it, Steven Camarota, research director at CIS (founded by John Tanton), “said authorities should crack down on these doctors who are putting greed ahead of the best interests of their own country. Just publishing the names of the doctors would likely bring the practice to a halt, he said.” There were various comments on the online article that exemplified the hysteria about Mexicans having children in the US, such as this one in which the commenter posted a doctor’s address and wrote, “We need to hold a mass rally and PROTEST this situation!! This is as bad as actually INVITING a foreign pregnant national to come to the USA for childbirth and therfore [sic] securing US Citizenship for that baby which will lead to more Mexicans coming in…And so on and so forth!!”
Glaring are the similarities between the attitudes shown here and of those who protest abortion clinics. Clearly a contradiction arises in the anti-immigrant movement in relation to abortion. While Tanton and other racists have in the past promoted abortion and birth control as a solution to “population problems”, many of their anti-immigrant allies unconditionally oppose freedom to choose abortion. In “Greening the Swastika,” Rajani Bhatia explains why the “population-environment right” might de-emphasize birth control and abortion. “For the anti-immigrant, population-environment lobby, birth control can only marginally affect population growth rates. Therefore, their main response to population and environmental problems is to prevent ‘the highly fertile’ from entering United States borders,” which is something the attack on birthright citizenship is meant to accomplish. This is a useful position considering the desire to both maintain/form alliances with conservatives while also courting the Left through environmental endeavors. Despite border security having more emphasis than birth control, there is still an ongoing attack on the fertility of populations of color throughout the world, because there are other interests that consider brown populations as threats.
Some feminists, concerned about the power of the pro-life movement, have made a troublesome alliance with organizations interested in population control in the Global South because they promote family planning. Betsy Hartmann asks, “Yes, but what kind of family planning, and for what purposes?” This predicament might remind one of Margaret Sanger, the “pioneer” of birth control, who allied with the eugenics movement (which influenced John Tanton and other promoters of population control) in order to promote access to birth control. Unfortunately it has led to major assaults on the reproductive freedom of women of color, which the mainstream pro-choice movement has been largely blind to even though various women of color have pointed it out.
Opposition to abortion is clearly not incompatible with desires to control the population of peoples of color. Loretta Ross, in “The Color of Choice” explains, “The only logic that explains this apparent moral inconsistency is one that examines precisely who is subjected to which treatment and who is affected by which reproductive policy at which time in history. Women of color have little trouble distinguishing between those who are encouraged to have more children and those who are not, and understanding which social, political, and economic forces influence these determinations.”
Angela Davis points out that despite the lack of access to abortion for many poor women, “they may be sterilized with the full financial support of the government.” We can see the effects of reproductive policy in the not too distant past, much of which was influenced by eugenics, or simply the racism of the day. “During the 1970’s it is estimated that up to 60,000 Native American women and some men were sterilized… Puerto Rican women were also sterilized at astronomical rates by U.S. tax dollars. During the same time, several Mexican American women were sterilized at a County hospital without much explanation or information. A national fertility study conducted by Princeton University found that 20 percent of all married African-American women had been sterilized by 1970.”
The attack on birthright citizenship is used as another weapon against the reproductive freedom of women of color, though perhaps not so objectionable a way as mass-sterilization. Still, the brutal attacks on women’s choice did not end decades ago. The coercive promotion of long-acting contraceptives Norplant and Depo Provera is a more recent example of the lack of concern for the reproductive freedom and health of women on welfare. Norplant was developed by the Population Council (started by John D Rockefeller III and linked to the eugenics movement) that promotes family planning in the Global South. In the early 1990s, Norplant was marketed to poor women and made available through Medicaid and state-funded clinics, costing states $34 million even while other social services were cut. Despite a number of side effects, some of which are very serious, healthcare workers had the prerogative to refuse to remove the device, some were not trained how, and the removal procedure is more difficult than the implantation.
One purported reason for women’s fertility becoming a target is that if poor women bred less, there would be less poverty. If we were to ask what poverty is and what it is caused by, the answer would lead us to systematic deprivation imposed through discrimination, the law, and through force particularly in the United States . Internationally and nationally, we see the consequences of resource/labor extraction as part of colonialism, capitalism, and neo-liberalism, such as the increase in the growth of cash crops for export, the loss of land, the privatization of natural resources, etc. The efforts to supposedly end poverty through population control (welfare could apply here too) is actually an attempt to decrease the threats that Black/Brown and poor people’s desires for freedom and equality (or even just survival) represent to these systems. Native people in the US and communities all across the Global South continue to be an obstacle to resource extraction, and have been attacked more recently via their reproduction (mass-murder is now frowned upon, but ‘population control’ is mostly acceptable).
Appeals to environmental concerns make for an even more agreeable campaign for population control. However, Andrea Smith breaks it down: “As the U.S. extracts resources from the Global South, people naturally follow these resources to the U.S. Yet, some mainstream environmentalists complain that the U.S. is now ‘overpopulated’ by immigrants… But the impact of an immigrant family living in a one-bedroom apartment and taking mass transit pales in comparison to that of a wealthy family living in a single family home with a swimming pool and two cars. Much of the environmental decline in this country has nothing to do with population growth or individual consumer choices.” Clearly women in the Global South make an even smaller impact on the environment.
Smith continues, “Rather than being caused by overpopulation, significant environmental damage is actually caused by the environmentally destructive Western development projects, such as hydroelectric dams, uranium development, militarism, and livestock production. These projects ultimately benefit the wealthy living in industrialized countries, which are responsible for producing over 75 percent of the world’s pollution. Development projects also cause unparalleled environmental damage, such as damming programs that flood entire biosystems or projects that rely on massive deforestation…Any damage done by indigenous people, peasants, and Global South farmers cannot compare to the damage done by multinationals and the World Bank, so the claim that stopping the ‘overpopulation’ of peasants and indigenous peoples in Global South countries will ‘save the environment’ is baseless.”
Because of the fear that “countries with large youth bulges were roughly two and a half times more likely to experience an outbreak of civil conflict than countries below this benchmark… many on the Right and on the Left want to restrict the growth of developing world populations, and in this context, ‘family planning’ becomes a tool to fight terrorism and civil unrest.” Dangerous birth control methods were largely pushed on women throughout the Global South (many were tested on, before the contraceptives were approved by the FDA) like they were to women on welfare in the United States.
When populations are contained (in size and/or activity) it is easier for those (institutions, investors, neo-liberal projects) who wish to impose their will on these populations or the land on which they reside. It is and has been the “systematically developed” strategy of institutions such as the Rockefeller Foundation, U.S. State Department, and the World Bank to put “the blame for poverty and hunger in the colonized countries on the poor themselves… The World Bank put pressure on governments asking for loans to take specific social and economic action to reduce fertility and to raise the status of women, socially, economically and politically. ‘Raising the status of women’, however, when spelled out in concrete policy measures, amounts mainly to educating women in order to increase their productivity, and to increasing their knowledge of contraceptives and their readiness to accept birth control measures.” This ‘raising the status of women’ is an insult due to the fact that one of the results of colonization is that women lost most of their knowledge of natural birth control and abortion methods which had existed for centuries, thereby removing their true choices and replacing them with the hand-picked so-called choices (not to mention that the conditions inflicted on these populations, including higher infant mortality rates, have led populations to reproduce more out of necessity).
The rhetoric around raising the status of women and increasing their knowledge and choice parallels capitalists’ calls for limited government, which is meant only to remove controls on the free market, yet is usually accompanied by increases in police, military and other controls over the people who are targeted for containment (we can see this nationally and internationally). “[The] emphasis on individual choice… obscures the social context in which individuals make choices, and discounts the ways in which the state regulates populations, disciplines individual bodies, and exercises control over sexuality, gender, and reproduction.” This calls not for the regulation of the free market, but the removal of the power and protection provided by the state.
There are other weapons of the free market and the state as well. Chang argues “that the First World agencies deliberately engineer the destruction of the Third World social services via [structural adjustment policies (SAPs)] to render Third World debtor countries ultimately vulnerable to their First World creditors. This facilitates the commodification of the Third World women for labor export as it becomes impossible for women to sustain their families at home under the devastation of SAPs and they are forced to migrate, often to work as domestic servants in the First World .” Migrants are then scape-goated for the problems that are in fact caused by Capitalists and neo-liberal projects like NAFTA.
We can see an overlap between population control and the denial of welfare in their functions to limit the population of people of color. Whether or not these campaigns are effective to limit the growth of those populations, the campaign also functions to shift or secure the blame on poor people of color while the true culprits go un-opposed by anyone besides the targeted populations. The “overpopulated” people and those on welfare are blamed for poverty, justifying their criminalization and constraints on their reproduction. Central to the desire to change the 14th amendment are these attacks on the reproductive freedom of women of color, no matter how the politicians attempt to legitimize it.
A Loop Hole for Criminals?
Russell Pearce and others believe that the 14th amendment was not intended to provide citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants. But no matter how objectionable their reasons, I tend to suspect that if the authors of the Citizenship Clause could have foreseen the issue of large amounts of unauthorized people coming from south of the border, they might very well have taken a different position. Indeed, Senator Edgar Cowan of Pennsylvania objected to the Citizenship Clause. He stated, “[I]s it proposed that the people of California are to remain quiescent while they are overrun by a flood of immigration of the Mongol race [sic]? Are they to be immigrated [sic] out of house and home by Chinese?” Fortunately he was outnumbered. At the time, in 1868 there was hardly the concept of an “illegal alien” and no numerical limitations on immigration. People did not have to obtain a visa to enter the U.S.—they would simply show up and be inspected and hardly anyone would be turned away. Additionally, there were no controls at the border and for quite a while immigration from Mexico was ignored or encouraged. The first “illegal immigrants” were those barred by the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Of course it is more convenient to believe that the European ancestors of U.S. citizens living here did it the “right way” even though there really wasn’t a wrong way to do it unless they lied about their health or their political beliefs.
No matter how noble some would like to think the authors of the constitution are (most owned slaves and sanctioned it), and the amendments (some hated the Chinese), if the authors of the 14th amendment could see into the future, it is likely they would’ve re-worded the amendment. Of course I am not arguing here that the children of undocumented immigrants should not have citizenship, I’m just being real. That said, I also suspect that if Russell Pearce had been in government after the civil war, he would’ve opposed providing citizenship to the children of freed slaves. He writes, “American citizenship is a privilege, not a right”.
The concept of citizenship and the rights it entails deserve examination. For example, why is it rarely questioned that settlers get to determine who belongs and who doesn’t? How does citizenship and immigration law discriminate against those who are not part of heterosexual families? Although I do not delve into these subject as much as I’d like to, the attitudes about worthiness regarding who gets to reproduce and what the consequences are for those who migrate speaks much about the ideas about citizenship. In many ways, especially as the efforts to change the amendment are concerned, citizenship currently provides legal status for those born here—and for most others, not just exclusion, but automatic criminalization. The question of who deserves citizenship rights or that such a thing should exist in the first place is more complex when considering the impact U.S. interests have had here (genocide, slavery, sexism), and in many of the countries that people migrate from. Take for example the way the Mexican government was coerced into changing their constitution (Article 27) in the interest in joining NAFTA, or how NAFTA, in combination with U.S. corn subsidies, has put thousands of Mexican corn farmers out of business, leading to their necessary migration to survive. I argue also, that the border is illegitimate based on the fact that migration is natural and that the ruling class desires borders and laws only to protect the wealth they have stolen from others.
The anti-immigrant movement has had little or no qualms about using extremist tactics which change the debate in their favor. Shifting attention onto defending those who are already considered legal makes more difficult the defense of those who are “illegal”. This is similar to the division created in the fight for the Dream Act in which some migrants are seen as worthy while others are marginalized.
This discussion and potential change of the Citizenship Clause may considerably change the way Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) would look, if it were to pass in the next few years. Would the government legalize some immigrants while making the others’ children illegal? It is especially troubling that Lindsey Graham, who has been pushing CIR, is one of the men moving this birthright citizenship question forward in congress. Considering also that the Immigration reform in 1986 made it harder for women to become legal than men, we will likely see more of the same, especially with the spotlight on this “invasion by birth canal”.
How possible is it that birthright citizenship could change? Could it lead to retroactive enforcement? What will the opposition look like? Romantic oratory about the sanctity of the constitution, or something that takes into account the points I bring up here? And if they fail in changing the amendment, will they still have succeeded at shifting the debate in their favor?