Fertile Hysteria: "Desert birthers," "maternity tourism," and the regenerative properties of racialized citizenship

The most recent birth-certificate debate means it’s once again time to evaluate properties of citizenship and the racialized value of American life. Image source.

Associate professor of comparative studies and women’s studies at The Ohio State University and author of American Pietàs

Challenging the rights to U.S. citizenship and the U.S. presidency of nonwhites has recently been all the rage in conservative political movements and discourses. Again.

From anti-birthright bills SB1308 and SB1309 recently proposed in Arizona to the “Birthers” conspiracy, debates about who should have access to the rights and privileges of national membership have taken on a familiar, if presently remarkably saturated, racial hue. To the historically conscious and anti-racistly inclined, the white nativist political and cultural motivations behind such initiatives appear to be blindingly transparent. Such transparency, coupled with the bittersweet victories – as one must cringingly call them – of the birthright bills’ failures to pass in the Arizona senate and President Obama’s release of his comedic, Lion King-assisted birth video immediately following that of his long-form birth certificate might lead us to conclude that our critical analytical attentions can turn completely elsewhere—perhaps to interrogating the discourses of “Operation Geronimo,” that patriotic mission on which the death of all that birth certificate silliness allowed us to focus. With this “new” critical project, however, we land – again – in the historical and culturally symbolic snake pit of racialized notions of belonging. We land in a space of critical urgency, needing to figure out what a dead Geronimo has to do with America’s safety and freedom, and what America’s safety and freedom has to do with Birthers and the eradication of “illegal” nonwhite births. Because just as surely as all of these recent events are inspired – and made sense of — by the racialized properties of citizenship and the racialized value of American life, the workings of these properties and the scales of this value are not self-evident.

Though race is a constant factor that determines the qualities of national membership (as well as the meanings of the births, deaths and assassinations that occur relative to national borders and national security), we understand the work of race most fully when we look at the intricacies of comparative, relational racialization. Take, for example, the dissonant representations between two targets of anti-birthright citizenship initiatives: Mexican “anchor babies” and Chinese “maternity tourists”. Gearing up to challenge the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship to everyone born on American soil – more specifically, to deny citizenship to those born to undocumented immigrants – many legislators and citizens took a cue from South Carolina Republican senator Lindsay Graham’s characterization of such births as acts of “drop (a baby) and leave.” Mad-TV-like caricatures of imagined Latina Breeder’s Associations membership calls and sombrero-wearing, cigar-smoking, diaper-clad, Mexican man-babies circulated on the Internet, along with advertisements for a range of products from T-shirts to BBQ aprons to tote-bags that displayed the slogan “Squat & Drop Does Not Make Anyone an American.” Obviously central to the strategy of all of these materials is a virulent nativism trained on Mexican immigrants. Both this Pew Research Center study in August 2010 and this New York Times article from January 2011 did some work to counter the notion that “fertile” or pregnant Latina immigrants to the United States are mere “squatters and droppers” by documenting that most of these women are seeking long-term, stable employment for themselves and their families – many of which are often “mixed” in the sense of consisting of both documented and undocumented members.

Also contradicting these “squat and drop” images of birthing Mexican women is Laura Gomez’s story, reported in the same January 2011 NYTimes article, in which she recounts carrying scissors with her in her journey across the border so that she could cut the umbilical cord after what she was certain would be her baby’s “desert birth.” These images of Mexican immigrant mothers range from nativist to sympathetic, but in all cases, they depend on the economic resourcelessness of their subjects for their effect. In a country where poverty itself is stigmatized and criminalized, the nobly suffering, persevering “desert birther” cannot be just, or perhaps even any kind of, gift to anti-racist, immigrant rights initiatives. Further complicating our attempts to understand how racialized maternal imagery is deployed in “anchor baby” coverage to both racist and anti-racist ends, is the recent “model minority”-inflected discourse of Chinese “maternity tourism” in the United States.

On March 28, 2011, the New York Times covered the closing of a maternity house in San Gabriel, California, wherein pregnant Chinese women who entered the country on tourist visas intended to live until giving birth. According to the article, these were “well-to-do” Chinese women. As the city inspector testified, “These were not women living in squalor — it was a well taken care of place and clean, but there were a lot of women and babies.” The article also suggested that this phenomenon of “maternity tourism” may not be as widespread as the label suggests, despite the fact that “businesses in China, Mexico and South Korea advertise packages that arrange for doctors, insurance and postpartum care” in the United States. Also apparently countering the stigma of impoverishment attributed to immigrant or “touring” pregnancies, the article reported that “in one kitchen, stacks of pictures showing a mother holding her days-old baby sat next to several cans of formula. In another, boxes of prenatal vitamins were tucked into rice cookers. Several bedroom doors had numbers on them. Some rooms were rather luxurious — B9, for instance, had a large walk-in closet, a whirlpool and a small personal refrigerator.”

While such coverage certainly runs counter to the racist images of “anchor babies” and the purportedly leeching families that breed them, the comparatively racializing repertoire of relatively pampered Chinese mothers and desert-traversing pregnant Mexicans occludes a long and complicated history wherein nativist laws governing citizenship and immigration have targeted Chinese and other Asian communities and wherein welfare reform policies since the 1990s have increasingly economically disenfranchised large numbers of these same groups (see Lynn Fujiwara’s brilliant study Mothers Without Citizenship). Indeed, the very first federal act of immigration regulation – the Page Act of 1875 – assumed that Chinese immigrant women seeking entry to the United States were prostitutes and in an effort to curtail this (Chinese) prostitution, denied entry to all Chinese women. The recent sympathetic portrayals of upstanding, “clean,” but problematically maternally touring Chinese women must be understood in this longer historical light.

The differences in racial inflection between these apparently vastly disparate moments wherein the national body is guarded and secured appear to index nothing more than significant progress in how Asian and Asian American families and maternities are, or can be, popularly consumed in public and legal discourse. But between the Page Act of 1875 and the shutting down of a Chinese maternity house in California in 2011, much more – and much less – than such “progress” has occurred in U.S. American images and legislation governing the racialized production of women and mothers, as well as the circumstances of immigrant births, lives, and social and material deaths. This is why the “desert birthers” and “maternity tourists” have to be decoded on the same analytical screen, the screen – or intermedial image-swath – of comparative racialization.

Anti-immigrant discourses of “desert birthers” need “maternity tourists” and “maternity tourists” need “desert birthers” so that the racialized, classed, and gendered requirements of American citizenship can be upheld in image and law. Both of these apparently different targets of anti-birthright initiatives index locations that are relative to – not constitutive of – citizens, bodies, and lives of value.


Read more about constructions of racialized citizenship in maternal imagery in Ruby C. Tapia’s American Pietàs: Visions of Race, Death, and the Maternal.

“American Pietàs offers a compelling analysis of racialized concepts of motherhood in American narratives of identity, history, and memory. This is an extremely important intervention that interrogates, rather than simply references, the centrality of racialized motherhood to national identities.”
—Wendy Kozol, Oberlin College

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