Uncovering the Nativism of Population Politics

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Uncovering the Nativism of Population Politics

Priscilla Huang

Anti-immigrant zealots insist that their motives are not racist. But given that they have worked to end birthright citizenship and criticize the higher birth rates of Asian and Latina immigrant women, their claims ring false.

When anti-immigrant zealots publicize their opposition to policies that they perceive as "pro-immigrant," they often insist that their motives are not racist. The anti-immigrant movement has carefully maintained that it is only opposed to "illegal" immigration, and welcomes immigrants who "follow the rules" and enter the country legally (even though half of all undocumented immigrants actually entered the U.S. through legal channels). Many pundits and presidential candidates similarly embrace this rhetoric. But as numerous immigrant rights organizations and columnist Andres Oppenheimer have pointed out, their assertions are in fact disingenuous.

What's more, immigrant women bear the brunt of these anti-immigrant attacks. Take the issue of birthright citizenship. Since the early 1990s, this 14th Amendment right has been under assault by nativist organizations like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, who successfully lobbied Congress members to introduce legislation that would repeal and replace the Citizenship Clause with a provision that would restrict birthright citizenship to U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. Over the years, restricting birthright citizenship has gained such popularity among conservative circles that the Republican party included it in their 1996 party platform. More recently, current and former Republican presidential candidates Ron Paul and Mitt Romney have voiced their support for ending this birthright. (Last month, Mike Huckabee was also reputed to support the effort to change our birthright citizenship laws, but later withdrew his support.)

What would it mean to end this right? Critics of birthright citizenship remain largely silent about the practical and legal consequences of implementing such a change, but it seems undeniable that eliminating this right would create an underclass of U.S. born children who are "aliens" in their own homeland. Restricting birthright citizenship to U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents would mean that children born to undocumented immigrant women or immigrant women with temporary visas would have no status under the law. They will be neither immigrant nor citizen and lack a national identity. In essence, ending birthright citizenship would create a new classification that would only apply to the offspring of mostly immigrant women of color. Moreover, it is an outcome that would put our country hundreds of years back to the slave era, when the status of your birthmother determined your status as a slave or a free man.

Population growth is another issue that fuels anti-immigrant hysteria. News of a "baby boomlet" at the beginning of the year prompted unfair attacks against immigrant women and their child-bearing capacities. While economists lauded the news as a positive indicator for the country's future prosperity, leaders and supporters of the anti-immigrant movement interpreted it as a negative consequence of the country's "liberal" immigration laws. According to conservatives like John Vinson, president of the American Immigration Control Foundation, foreigners migrate to the U.S. because "[a U.S. born] child is an automatic American citizen, thus entitled to all benefits of American citizens. This gives a certain financial incentive for people coming from other countries illegally to have children here." Several conservative blogs and online comment boards similarly exploded with vitriolic attacks against immigrant women, blaming them for a range of social ills from "overpopulation" to the nation's current budget deficit.

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Notably, the higher birth rates of Asian and Latina immigrant women are often unfavorably compared to the national average, yet little is mentioned of the high birth rates of certain predominantly-white religious groups, such as Mormons. In 2006, Utah, which is over 70% Mormon, reported an average birth rate of 19.2 births per 1,000 persons compared to the national average of 13.9 per 1,000 persons. The Church also encourages high fertility rates; according to orthodox Mormons, the ideal Mormon family should have about four children. In recent years, white fundamentalist Protestants have also seen a boost in birth rates as part of a little-known movement called "natalism." These suburb-loving families often include four or more children, concentrate in counties that are nearly 100% white and view parenthood as a calling. Yet, why haven't pundits or "population control" theorists called on Mormon or Christian fundamentalist women to control their ovaries?

That's because there's a political correlation between communities with high white fertility rates and the conservative vote. In 2004, George Bush carried the 19 states with the highest birth rates, while John Kerry took the 16 states with the lowest rates. It is not surprising then that conservatives like to detract attention away from their own childbearing patterns by accusing immigrant women of having too many children and burdening everything from the environment to the U.S. health care, tax, and public benefits systems (more myths that anti-immigrants like to promote). In short, the claim that the anti-immigrant movement is not a racist one is false. And it's another reason why the social justice movement must continue to work together to engage in anti-racist and anti-sexist advocacy.