Gendered Assaults: The Attack on Immigrant Women


Syd Lindsley

If

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

America.”

Iowa

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.

This

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.

While

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.

The

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.

In

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.

Immigrant

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.

The

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].

FAIR’s

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.

In

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.

For

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.

In

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.

Just

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”

immigrants.

Although

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.

In

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.

The

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.

Furthermore,

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

citizens.

Although

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.”

The

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.

Contemporary

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.

Syd

Lindsley is the Population and Development Program Coordinator, the Hampshire

College Women’s Center Coordinator, and a feminist activist.

 

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