you opened a newspaper in Iowa this spring, you might have come across an
advertisement stating: “How do you feel about paving over the amber waves of
grain, the purple mountain majesties and the fruited plain?” If you read the
small print, you found not the anticipated environmental message, but a proposal
to drastically reduce immigration to the U.S. to 200,000 people a year. The ad
states: “…every year in America we pave an area equal to the state of
Delaware…Why? Because our nation’s population is growing at an unprecedented
rate, due primarily to an immigration policy that’s changing the landscape of
isn’t the only state besieged by anti-immigrant media campaigns. Local and
national anti-immigrant groups, such as Negative Population Growth (NPG), the
Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), ProjectUSA, and the
California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR), are erecting billboards and
placing print, TV, and radio ads in locales across the nation.
resurgence of anti-immigrant organizing began in the 1990s, as many politicians,
organizations, and individuals cast blame on immigrants as the source of the
nation’s social, economic, and environmental problems.
deepening economic inequality in the U.S. has set the stage for the resurgence
of anti-immigrant scape-goating; economic matters alone are not enough to
explain the force with which anti-immigrant opinion has taken hold in the public
arena. The recent revival of nativism is also motivated by white U.S.
residents’ anxieties about the changing racial demographics caused by the
sustained immigration of non-white foreigners. In the last three decades, the
majority of immigrants have been non-white; the majority of today’s immigrants
are either Asian or Latino.
migration of so many non-white individuals to the country threatens to
destabilize the core connection between whiteness and “American”-ness that
comprises the mythology of a homogenous “American” national identity, a
prospect that has put many white U.S. residents on edge. Indeed, the
“threat” of a non-white majority in the United States has sparked major
outcry. In 1994, presidential candidate Pat Buchanan warned, “A non-white
majority is envisioned if today’s immigration continues.” Given this
prediction, he argued that the U.S. needed a “time out” from immigration.
this wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, politicians and immigration “reform”
groups are taking aim at immigrant women and children in particular. As mothers,
immigrant women are especially dangerous in the eyes of today’s nativists
because of their capacity to give birth to non-white citizen children. Of
course, most anti-immigrant politicians and organizations deny such racist and
sexist motives, preferring more palatable economic and environmental arguments.
women and children are also targeted for a second reason. The U.S. government
and employers rely on a low-cost temporary labor reserve of migrant men and
women to whom they have no obligation to provide education, health insurance, or
other services. The settlement of immigrant families, including children, shifts
the cost of reproduction (both biological and social) from the sending country
to the U.S. While government and employers want to obtain profits from immigrant
labor, they don’t want to bear the costs of reproducing the labor force.
so-called “environmental” anti-immigrant perspective claims that immigration
and the higher fertility rates of immigrants are causing overpopulation and thus
environmental degradation. The “green” attack on immigrants is lodged
securely within a population control framework which maintains that halting
population growth is the key to stemming poverty, environmental degradation, and
even war. U.S. anti-immigrant rhetoric blames immigrants and their children for
perpetuating poverty, increasing scarcity, and destroying the environment. For
example, a 1996 advertisement from NPG reads: Immigration is the driving force
behind the population growth that is devastating our environment and the quality
of our lives. Primarily because of immigration we are rushing at breakneck speed
toward an environmental and economic disaster [emphasis included].
The Environmentalist’s Guide to a Sensible Immigration Policy evokes the
threat of immigrant women’s reproduction in a section heading:
“Immigration’s Invisible Multiplier: Offspring.” FAIR and other
anti-immigrant organizations often refer to the danger of so-called “chain
migration,” a.k.a. immigration through family reunification laws. FAIR warns
that “a single immigrant who is admitted for needed job skills, or out of
humanitarian concerns, or for some other reason, can become the link in an
unbreakable chain of family migration.” FAIR and other groups are lobbying for
laws that would restrict family reunification. Women would be the primary
victims of such legislation, since the vast majority of women immigrants come
through family-based immigration laws. Furthermore, such reforms would create
unnecessary hardship by prolonging the separation of immigrant families.
the economic realm, immigrants and their children are blamed for depleting
social services budgets, especially in areas where there is a concentrated
population of foreign-born residents, such as California. In the 1990s, many
immigration “reform” proponents began suggesting legislation aimed at
decreasing the availability of social services to immigrants, especially
undocumented ones. Although undocumented immigrants were never eligible for most
types of welfare and Medicaid, recent legislation has attempted to reduce the
few services available to all types of immigrants even further. Much of this
legislation directly targets and affects immigrant women and children.
example, early in the 1990s, California Rep. Elton Gallegly suggested a
constitutional amendment that would deny citizenship to children born in the
United States to undocumented parents, a proposal that some anti-immigrant
organizations currently endorse.
another example, California’s Proposition 187, which appeared on the 1994
ballot, would have prohibited local and state agencies from providing publicly
funded social services, education, welfare, and non-emergency health care to any
person whom they do not verify as a U.S. citizen or lawfully admitted alien.
Proponents of Prop 187 stressed the bar on public support for prenatal care for
undocumented women. The phrase, “Two out of three babies delivered at Los
Angeles county hospitals were born to undocumented women,” became a rallying
cry of the Prop 187 campaign, even though this statistic is highly questionable.
Clearly, Proposition 187 proponents placed little value on the reproductive
health of undocumented women and their children. Proposition 187’s proposed
ban on public education funds for undocumented children was also an attempt to
permanently exclude these children from integration into U.S. society.
two years following Proposition 187’s assault on undocumented immigrants in
California, the US Congress passed a bill that accomplished many of the same
goals, this time on a national level. The bill was the Personal Responsibility
and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), popularly known as the
welfare reform act. The Act had a significant impact on the way both documented
and undocumented immigrants may use public services. The Act imposed
restrictions on “legal” immigrants’ use of services, and banned
“illegal” immigrants’ use of most public services altogether. The Act also
gave states greater ability to deny state and local assistance to undocumented
immigrants. Immediately after the enactment of PRWORA, former California
Governor Pete Wilson made prenatal care the first target of his campaign to
enact the federal law’s ban on state and local assistance to “illegal”
Proposition 187 was declared unconstitutional, and Wilson’s ban on
undocumented women’s access to prenatal care was eventually overturned by his
successor, Gray Davis, these measures continue to have a very real effect on
immigrant women’s reproductive health and access to services. A recent Urban
Institute study points to a noticeable “chilling effect” on immigrants’
willingness to access health care and other benefits. The authors find that the
nationwide decline in immigrants’ access to such programs is due less to
actual eligibility changes than to immigrants’ fear and suspicion around using
these programs—the “chilling effect” of welfare reform.
fact, the attacks on immigrant women’s ability to reproduce and maintain their
families form the root of the recent assault on immigrants. Attacks on legal and
illegal immigrants’ rights to public services, including prenatal care,
schooling for immigrant children, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and
non-emergency health care are all attempts to regulate and control immigrant
women’s reproductive work.
right to choose whether to have or not to have children is a fundamental
reproductive and human right for all women. Contemporary anti-immigrant politics
attempt to place governmental restrictions on immigrant women’s ability to
make their own reproductive choices.
in the context of a nationalistic, anti-immigrant social and political climate,
the assault on immigrant women’s reproduction is fundamentally an assault on
their right to contribute to the next generation of citizens. It is an attempt
to control who may be considered “American” and to exclude undocumented
immigrants, particularly Latinos and Asians, from the rights bestowed on
California was a hotspot for anti-immigrant activism and legislation during the
1990s, campaigns to foster anti-immigrant feeling and drastically cut
immigration are well underway in all regions of the nation. More and more often,
the message they are sending relies heavily on population control ideology, and
perpetuates racist ideals of a homogenous white “America.”
implications are clear: there are too many “outsiders” in this country, and
“we” must do everything we can to keep their numbers down. In anti-immigrant
propaganda, references to the “higher fertility” of recent immigrants
suggest that immigrants’ fertility rates are something to be tightly monitored
and controlled. Such messages not only have dangerous consequences for immigrant
women’s reproductive health and rights, they also clearly state that recent
Latino and Asian immigrants are unvalued members of U.S. society.
attacks on immigrants are dangerously eroding immigrants’ civil rights,
including immigrant women’s reproductive health and rights. The nation that
sings the praises of “liberty and justice for all,” clearly fails to ensure
immigrants’ access to these basic entitlements.
Lindsley is the Population and Development Program Coordinator, the Hampshire
College Women’s Center Coordinator, and a feminist activist.