“Dropping Babies:” Senator Pearce Targets Immigrant Mothers

Amie Newman

Senator Pearce, the architect behind SB1070, Arizona's harsh anti-immigrant law, is at it again with a move to criminalize babies.

How are we allowing a necessary discussion on immigration reform to fly so far out of bounds? I’m talking, of course, about the passage of Arizona’s SB1070 with tremendous popular support (though with its share of detractors – including Arizona police officers themselves) and now Senator Russell Pearce’s latest venture into xenophobia with an eye towards criminalizing babies. Yes, you read that right. Babies.

Last Friday, Arizona senator Russell Pearce (R-Mesa) decided that SB1070, the bill he sponsored, signed into law last month by Gov. Jan Brewer which infuses local law enforcement with the power to arrest and detain those women and men living in Arizona who give them “reasonable suspicion” to believe they are living here undocumented, doesn’t go far enough.

It isn’t enough for Sen. Pearce that federal programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities are, according to Tara Tidwell Cullen of the National Immigrant Justice Center, “resulting in the detention and deportation of people who not only aren’t dangers to our society, but in many cases are contributing to our communities…and resulting in many women and men being denied access to basic due process rights, such as access to legal counsel and a fair day in court.”

It isn’t enough that SB1070 mandates that documented immigrants carry proof of citizenship with them anywhere they go throughout the state – or face potential arrest. 

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Senator Pearce is not satisfied. Pearce announced last week that he’d like to now penalize babies born to immigrants. Or more specifically, “pass bills against anchor babies.” According to ColorLines blog, Racewire, a Phoenix news station obtained a set of emails describing Pearce’s 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.”

Pearce is playing off of a particularly misogynistic focus on immigrant mothers as the gateway to the so-called “Anchor Baby Phenomena,” phrased by one of the emailers.

“In order to be most effective on border issues, we must bring in the equation that is behind most of our Downfall as a nation…The Anchor Baby Phenomena must be addressed, via the mother…Only through her can we, Make the changes so desperately needed to end this nightmare…IF THE MOTHER IS ILLEGAL, SO IS THE CHILD…End of story…”

Another email exchanged with Pearce, which Pearce has said he agrees with, declares, “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.” Why? Well, according to the writer of the email, “I can just see our courts boggled with paternity claims and millions spent on DNA tests to prove paternity. DNA tests take time. Can you see the mess? A big can of worms!”

Leaving aside the dehumanizing term “anchor baby” for a moment, targeting women immigrants is sexist. But it’s also telling. What Pearce, Brewer and advocates of SB1070 have opened wide are the great, iron gates of racism, xenophobia and the age-old tactic of the conservative male: control of women’s bodies. If they truly wanted to effect meaningful immigration reform – and many are saying it’s exactly Obama’s failure to do so that has led to despicable legislation like this – they would be looking for the truth about the impact of immigrants on the U.S. economy and social structure, who is actually coming to this country and why, what the process of becoming an American citizen is really like and how we can best change it to benefit everyone. In fact, according to Tara Tidwell Cullen:

“Numerous studies also have shown that immigration benefits the American economy. A recent report from UCLA shows that “legalizing undocumented workers through comprehensive immigration reform would yield $1.5 trillion to the U.S. GDP over a ten year period, generate billions in additional tax revenue and consumer spending and support hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

Does Senator Pearce, with his new target of women and their babies who, according to the 14th amendment, are U.S. citizens if born on United States soil, really care to understand any of this? Does he want to know the immigrant woman’s experience? The reasons she comes here and why it’s so important for the babies and children of women who live here undocumented to remain here?

According to the New American Media report released in 2009, the results of a survey of immigrant women from around the world, the second most popular reason given for coming to the United States is ” to make a better life for my children” and the first is “to join family members already in the U.S.” Even though immigrant women face significant and sometimes unimaginable economic hardship the biggest challenge women immigrants in the U.S. face, they say, is “helping my children achieve success.”

So, immigrant women are coming to the United States, and staying in the U.S., struggling through poverty and stigma, racism and fear because they want a better life for their children. But Senator Pearce believes that the root of  (what – crime? Violence? Violent crime?) Arizona’s immigration issues lies in the women and babies of his state. Not only that but, as another email (not from Pearce himself but included in the collection) puts it, the children who are now considered U.S. citizens, who were born here and have lived here all their lives should be immediately deported under a new law:

“All underage and/or dependent children should be deported with their parents…no matter how long they have been in the U.S….no excuses…no exceptions. The parents created the mess…let them deal with it back in their own countries!!! The underage children are not the responsibility of American taxpayers!!!”

It’s hard not to be shocked by the vitriol behind the words.

But, of Pearce’s bill brainstorm, Tidwell Cullen tells me:

“Bills such as Pearce’s have been introduced regularly over the past several years. That this kind of vile proposal, which contradicts the U.S. Constitution and America’s legacy as a nation of immigrants, is gaining any traction now is an indication of the level of frustration people feel at the failure by President Obama and Congress to find solutions to our country’s broken immigration system.

In order for a woman who entered without inspection (meaning without documents and without going through customs) to get legal status through a baby born in the United States, she would have to (1) wait until the baby turned 21—the age at which a child can petition for a parent and (2) after the petition is approved, return to her home country for 10 years because she would be subject to a 10-year bar as a result of her previous unauthorized entry.  She could petition for a waiver of the 10-year bar, but it is a high standard – she must prove extreme hardship to a U.S. citizen relative – and is very difficult to meet.”

Pearce seems to feel, then, that women who “drop” babies in the United States (oh, if it were only as easy as that Senator Pearce) are somehow “working the system?” Says Tidwell Cullen:

“When you say “working the system” I assume you are referring to undocumented immigrants’ use of public services. In fact, undocumented immigrants are restricted from access to many public services, and tend to access those services for which they are eligible at a lower rate than U.S. citizens because of language barriers, lack of understanding of the U.S. health care system, and fear of deportation if their lack of status is detected.”

Here’s where it gets tricky though. Maybe Senator Pearce is on to something. Again, according to the New American Media report, women immigrants say that “if they were forced to leave the U.S.” they would take their children – even those born in the U.S. – back to their home country. Brilliant move, Senator Pearce. You really do understand how important the mother/child relationship is, leveraging unending maternal love to help you play your political game.

Finally, when asked whether they would “like to become a citizen of the U.S. in the future or would you prefer to remain a citizen of your home country” 90 percent of Latin American women, documents the New American Media report, say they would prefer to become a citizen of the U.S.  The main reason why these women want to become a citizen of the U.S.? It’s not to be able to live in the U.S for the rest of their lives, in fact. And it’s not to “get a better job or make more money.”  It’s “to make sure I am never separated from my children.”

So, what exactly are immigrant families to do under state laws like SB1070 and federal policies like 287(g) – both of which seek to criminalize immigrants, the majority of whom are now women who come to this country seeking a better life for the children they have or the children they are yet to have? 

Tara Tidwell Cullen says that for many people who need to come to the United States to reunite with family, “there simply is no lawful immigration option” and calls the process for family-based immigration “extremely restrictive.”

 “There are only a few ways to lawfully migrate to the United States and they are very specific in their qualifications for eligibility: 1) employment-based 2) family-based petitions, 2) asylum  seekers or refugees fleeing persecution, 3) victims of violent crimes, domestic violence, or trafficking who are willing to assist in a law enforcement investigation, and 4) through a diversity lottery. “

So, once again, we are left with a clear call to women’s rights advocates that women and children in Arizona need our help. “Anchor babies,” “illegal alien mothers…dropping babies,” “targeting the mothers” – these are phrases used to justify a further step towards inhumane immigration “reform” on the backs of women and babies. These are also phrases that reflect the underlying issue for Pearce and his cronies. It is not about legality but fear of the power that immigrant women, in their reproductive years, have to change the face of American society with their bodies.

Tidwell Cullen says that, “Immigrant women are affected by laws that restrict their access to medical care, education, economic security and other basic rights that are at the center of the women’s rights movement” and implores women’s rights organizations that haven’t already to “recognize that our own wellbeing as a nation, as a democracy, and as a people, is tied up in the wellbeing of immigrants who come to our country seeking a better life. Denying basic fairness and justice to any group, as SB 1070 and federal immigration policies are doing, endangers us all….”

As Obama moves to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on sending troops to patrol our border, women’s rights advocates can help groups like the National Immigrant Justice Center and others, in Washington DC and online, educate about and mobilize around the need for true, humane immigration reform; organizing people to support, says Tidwell Cullen, policies that protect human rights not threaten them, and oppose legislation that seeks to criminalize mothers for daring to seek a better life for their children. 

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