Nationalist Heterosexuality and Migrants’ (Il)Legal Status

The Irish asylum process in the early years of the millennium.

By Eithne Luibhéid
Associate professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona

At the turn of the millennium, how did the general public come to believe that pregnancy might provide a visible sign that a woman was an undocumented migrant? And how did concerns about migrants’ pregnancies and childbearing become the basis for expanding laws and policies in ways that resulted in more migrants actually becoming classified by states as undocumented?

Inspired by these questions, Pregnant on Arrival explores the discursive construction of pregnant immigrants as paradigmatic figures of undocumented immigration; the legal and policy changes that were made in response; and the cultural, social, and economic consequences of these changes for both migrants and citizens. In the process, the book bridges the gap between scholarship on the social construction of the “illegal” immigrant and queer theories of sexual normalization, while extending each one.

Scholarship on the social construction of the “illegal” immigrant challenges the mainstream view that undocumented status reflects a migrant’s inherently undesirable character, and instead suggests that histories of colonialism, global capitalism, racism, and exclusionary nation-building significantly determine which immigrants become designated as documented or not. Yet the scholarship has been largely silent on how nationalist sexual regimes figure into these processes. Consequently, it is unable to explain how some immigrants become constructed as undocumented because they are pregnant.

This book turns to queer theory to understand how pregnancy, in particular, and sexuality in general, shapes nation-state regimes for designating immigrants’ legal status. Queer theory is particularly useful because it does not treat sexual identities as stable or transhistorical, but instead, explores the ongoing production of distinctions between normative and non-normative sexualities. Queer migration scholarship has challenged the tendency to ignore, erase, trivialize, or subsume questions about sexuality and migration within other rubrics (including gender, morality, deviance, and criminality), and has richly explored the experiences of gay, lesbian, transgender and queer migrants. Focusing on controversies over pregnant migrants, this book builds on queer migration scholarship, showing not only how pregnant migrants’ relationships to dominant sexual norms affect their possibilities for becoming designated as documented or not, but also how nation-state efforts to control pregnant migrants redefines those dominant norms.

The book’s chapters are linked through the argument that designations of migrants’ legal statuses are not fixed but shifting, including in response to changing social, cultural and economic conditions. Each chapter therefore critically examines how pregnancy and childbearing became a means for struggling over designations of migrants’ legal status, why the designations mattered, and for whom.

The book does not seek to resolve whether any migrants were “really” undocumented, nor to propose policy changes to assist in better policing against unauthorized migration. Instead, the book provides understanding of how migrant legal status categories emerge and change; the relations of power in which they are embedded; the centrality of sexual regimes to these processes; and how efforts to prevent unauthorized migration ultimately redefine nationalist sexual norms. The book also suggests that rather than viewing migrants as either victims needing “rescue” or cynical criminal spongers, they are heterogeneous people who variously participate in struggling over legal status possibilities, without their lives being reducible to these matters or to the inscriptions of the state.

Even as states use sexual logics–that (re)articulate geopolitical, economic, racial and gender hierarchies–to rework and often expand the grounds for designating numerous migrants as undocumented, these state policies do little to address the structural inequalities that drive global migration in the first place. Numerous scholarly and activist projects have proposed alternatives to violent global apartheid that is upheld by nation-state immigration controls. This book asks what possibilities might emerge if we were to centrally factor sexuality as an axis of power, struggle, and resistance into these alternative frameworks? Moreover, what if we were to address various struggles over migrant sexualities—including migrants’ childbearing, migrant same-sex partnerships, migrant sex work, migrant domestics negotiating sexual abuse and/or unplanned pregnancy, migrants with HIV/AIDS, and much more—not in isolation from one another, but as interlinked by heteronormative state immigration controls that produce multiple, interlocking, through not necessarily commensurate inequalities? As U.S. Congress debates comprehensive immigration reform, and what to do about the estimated 11 million undocumented people living within the territory, possibilities that truly address the needs of racialized, queered, impoverished people urgently demand to be acted upon.


Eithne Luibhéid is author of Pregnant on Arrival: Making the Illegal Immigrant and Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border. She is also co-editor of Queer Migrations: Sexuality, U.S. Citizenship, and Border Crossings. She is associate professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Arizona.

“Eithne Luibhéid exquisitely details how the Irish became embroiled in a politics over the sexuality and reproduction of mainly African refugees, leading to the controversial referendum denying birthright citizenship.”
—Leo R. Chavez, author of The Latino Threat

Pregnant on Arrival makes an enormous, essential contribution in demonstrating how women’s bodies and their sexuality become central to immigration controls.”
—Monisha Das Gupta, author of Unruly Immigrants

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