The Right’s Long, Racist History of Calling Moms Criminals

The GOP's birthright citizenship drama isn't the first in which women of color have been cast as criminal breeders.

By Michelle Chen Aug 19, 2010

The political showdown over the 14th Amendment has a woman’s touch. A commentary by Gebe Martinez, Ann Garcia, Jessica Arons at the Center for American Progress dissects the politics and the psychology of the campaign to change the 14th Amendment to dismantle birthright citizenship. Aside from the many legal flaws in their argument and the sheer ridiculousness of trying to change the Constitution to clamp down on immigration, the rhetoric stems from a rich history of white patriarchy in American politics. Terms like "anchor baby" and "drop and leave" reduce Latina immigrants to the status of breeders and criminals, negating not only their humanity but their right to motherhood as well. The authors point out that the demonization of women of color is a pretty common theme throughout the history of racial justice struggles:

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…. 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.

To understand the gender dimension of institutionalized racism, we can look back to the evolution of the earliest efforts to formalize racial hierarchy. For example, historians have noted that in Virginia’s colonial plantation society, laws and customs were framed around the goals of entrenching Black enslavement, controlling Black women’s fertility, and generally bolstering white men’s legal and social privilege. As for the 14th Amendment, as Victor Goode pointed out last week, the sanctity of the family was one of the main principles used to defend birthright citizenship in the courts–a legal battle that remains unsettled. Drawing from history going back to the era of slavery, we see the underlying objective behind the dehumanization of Latina mothers in the political arena: to obliterate the concept of the immigrant family in the public consciousness. To erase their presence in American communities and their contributions to the social fabric (not to mention the inequities they face in reproductive health and labor rights). There’s a sinister logic to it: Latina women aren’t mothers; they drop babies. Latino fathers don’t support their families; they steal jobs. So the undocumented are blurred into a faceless horde that threatens to crowd out deserving U.S. citizens. This rubric teaches "real Americans" that their status must be vigilantly guarded, because citizenship isn’t a birthright, but a privilege, reserved for real people.