Center for American Progress

Birthright Citizenship Debate Is a Thinly Veiled Attack on Immigrant Mothers

Birthright Citizenship Debate Is a Thinly Veiled Attack on Immigrant Mothers

Conservative attempts to deny birthright citizenship to children of some immigrants are sexist and racist, write Gebe Martinez, Ann Garcia, and Jessica Arons.

Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce (R-Mesa), author of Arizona's immigration bill, SB1070, admits that his support for changing the Constitution to deny birthright citizenship is gender based. (AP/Matt York)
Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce (R-Mesa), author of Arizona's immigration bill, SB1070, admits that his support for changing the Constitution to deny birthright citizenship is gender based. (AP/Matt York)

This election cycle conservatives are intoxicated with immigrant bashing, particularly pregnant immigrant women and their children. Their tactic: change the U.S. Constitution to deny citizenship to babies born in this country to undocumented women. This is a cynical strategy that explicitly targets Latino communities—the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. These desperate politicians would rather get rid of these new voters than do the hard work of cultivating them. In their quest for power they will do or say anything to get elected.

This is also an ugly strategy fueled by sexism and racism. It taps into a long history of population control—government efforts to curb growth among disfavored populations. During slavery, the children slaveowners sired with their slaves were deemed slaves themselves who could be sold as chattel, thereby increasing the wealth of the owner rather than the size of his family. Chinese women in the 1800s were labeled prostitutes and denied visas to join their husbands who labored on our railroads. And black women, Native American women, and Latinas were routinely sterilized either without their knowledge or without their consent as recently as the 1970s.

Conservatives’ rhetoric on this issue is particularly insulting, likening the human birthing process to that of farm animals.

“They come here to drop a child. It’s called ‘drop and leave,’” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) during an interview on Fox News. Graham’s comments were especially shocking given his past leading role as a sponsor of comprehensive immigration reform legislation aimed at uniting, not dividing families. Nevertheless, his comments buoyed the push to end birthright citizenship, creating an echo on Capitol Hill where conservative leaders then called for hearings on the issue.

The rhetoric did not get any better coming from former obstetrician-turned-congressman Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) on MSNBC: “That dropping situation, Chris, is what we refer to as anchor baby.”

And Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce (R-Mesa), the architect of S.B. 1070, the state’s anti-immigrant law now being challenged in court, conceded that his support for changing the Constitution is gender based. He circulated and publicly defended a statement by Al Garza, one of his constituents and a former top official of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, a group classified as a nativist extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The e-mail Pearce defended reads, “If we are going to have an effect on the anchor baby racket, we need to target the mother. Call it sexist, but that’s the way nature made it. Men don’t drop anchor babies, illegal alien mothers do.”

Pearce’s amalgamation of legislative proposals would inexorably lead to ethnic profiling of pregnant women. This already occurred in Utah even without any legislation to sanction it. Two state government workers sent the names of 1,300 people to law enforcement and the news media because they suspected them of being undocumented immigrants. The list included the due dates of pregnant women, which is a disturbing invitation for harassment and is most likely a violation of federal health privacy laws.

Ironically, many of the same politicians who have jumped on the citizenship denial bandwagon also claim to be “pro-life” and “pro-family.” Yet they have no hesitation about splitting up families through harsh deportation policies or dehumanizing immigrant women and their children with their hateful rhetoric.

By portraying immigrant women as less than human—that they “drop” babies as animals drop their offspring—immigration opponents stir up fears that foreigners specifically come here to have children in order to derive citizenship from their children, or claim government benefits. Or, as Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) has foolishly maintained, to “raise and coddle” future terrorists.

But the simple fact is that most immigrant women do not come to the United States to give birth. They come to work. A child cannot even petition for the parents to become citizens until the child is 21. What’s more, undocumented immigrants have never been eligible for welfare benefits, and new legal immigrants to the United States became ineligible for services for the poor as a result of the 1996 welfare reform law President Bill Clinton signed.

Not coincidentally, two subcommittees of the House Judiciary Committee held a joint hearing on seven proposed bills or resolutions by conservatives to limit birthright citizenship in late 1995, a few months before the government cut back welfare benefits for legal immigrants.

Those wanting to maintain constitutional rights for citizen children of immigrants argued then as now that if birthright citizenship were removed the policy would be difficult to carry out and mothers’ health could be endangered. Moreover, health care professionals would be turned into immigration agents, and pregnant women who might not “look” like citizens would face stressful questioning or harassment at the borders.

Questions have been raised since then over whether deportations target pregnant women, as in the tragic case of Jiang Zhen Xing, a pregnant Chinese woman. Xing went with her husband and two sons on February 7, 2006 to an immigration office near Philadelphia for what they thought was routine questioning. But she was taken into custody and driven to JFK Airport for deportation to China. Xing begged for and was repeatedly denied medical care while she was held for eight hours at the airport. When she was finally taken to a hospital, doctors discovered she had miscarried twin fetuses.

Priscilla Huang, recounting this story in the Harvard Law & Policy Review, concluded, “Immigrant women are particularly prone to ideological attacks, as well as punitive welfare and immigration policies, because of their capacity for child-bearing.”

Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who is in a tough primary election this month, originally did not object to birthright citizenship hearings. But as a former champion of comprehensive immigration reform who often referred to immigrants as “God’s children,” he recently changed his approach and officially opposed changing the 14th Amendment.

The top GOP candidates in California—both women—have also come out against denying birthright citizenship rights. Gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and Senate candidate Carly Fiorina stated their opposition to changing that part of the Constitution when responding to questions from the press.

Another conservative proposal, however, would deny pregnant foreigners permission to enter the United States. This, too, is wrong-headed and impossible to enforce. What do they suggest? Administering pregnancy tests to all women at the border?

Political satirist Stephen Colbert recently showed the absurdity of the debate by mockingly calling for a 2,000-mile latex border fence coated with spermicidal jelly. He told his television audience, “I’m sure there are women pointing themselves at our border right now” so that they can ‘squirt’ their babies across the border.

This politically manufactured issue is indeed ludicrous, but it is no laughing matter. It will take time to remind the public that the only “anchors” in this debate are the dead weights that refuse to act responsibly and fix our broken immigration system by enacting comprehensive immigration reform. Targeting women and children instead is a cowardly way out.

Gebe Martinez is a Senior Writer and Policy Analyst, Ann Garcia is Special Assistant for Immigration Policy, and Jessica Arons is Director of Women’s Health and Rights Program at American Progress.

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Ann Garcia

Policy Analyst

Jessica Arons

Director, Women\'s Health & Rights Program