The Trump administration's new policy targeting Black and brown pregnant immigrants is yet another white nationalistic ploy to normalize discrimination.
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The punitive Trump administration announced recently that they are imposing new visa rules on pregnant immigrants, denying them a tourist visa to the United States unless they can prove that they have to come here for “medical reasons” and are able to pay for their own care.
Of course, this rule isn’t universal. The administration has a very specific target. It won’t apply to travelers from any of the 39 countries enrolled in the Visa Waiver Program, the vast majority of whom are European and Asian. While they’ve already been denying entry to pregnant immigrants who approach the U.S.-Mexico border, now they’re expanding that effort to the continent of Africa and all of Latin America.
The administration calls this policy a crackdown on “birth tourism,” a derisive term for pregnant people who give birth in another country and thereby obtain citizenship from that nation for their child. In reality, the number of children born to undocumented immigrants is declining, and experts claim that while so-called birth tourism may be real, “the numbers are really quite small.”
So if they’re not going after birth tourism, what is Trump’s objective?
To ensure white supremacy remains, white people must be able to control who reproduces the population in the nation. As demographic trends continue to shift, that possibility seems less and less likely. White people are expected to be a racial minority in the United States as soon as 2044. To prolong that dominance and put off that demographic destiny requires insurance that “citizenship” remains synonymous with “whiteness.”
Restricting immigration for pregnant people from Black and brown countries isn’t an accident—it’s the design. Denying African and Latin American immigrants entry into the United States doesn’t just ensure that they are denied citizenship; it ensures the denial of future generations of Black and brown citizens.
These visa rules are a new form of an old American pastime: eugenics.
In the first quarter of the 20th century, the United States was engrossed in eugenics mania. Scientists and politicians were convinced that they could improve society by essentially “breeding out” negative traits, anything from promiscuity to criminality. At a base level, though, eugenics was a response to a significant increase of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, as well as Asia. A disruption of religious hegemony spurred escalating concern from gatekeepers, particularly the influx in Catholic and Jewish immigrants. But more than anything, it was a wave of racial diversity that triggered deep, malignant fears of an end to white rule. Rampant fears about the “unfit” reproducing and polluting Anglo-Saxon bloodlines led to a coordinated legislative campaign of bigotry and oppression, one that echoes in the State Department’s new visa rules today.
In Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, Adam Cohen details how the eugenics movement combined support for mandatory sterilization with severe immigration restriction to reduce what were deemed “inferior” people from reproducing.
“The eugenics movement offered two solutions: one for the threat from without and one for the danger from within. Its answer to the foreign threat was new immigration laws to limit the number of Italians, eastern European Jews, and other non-northern Europeans admitted to the country. The eugenicists claimed the groups they wanted to exclude had inordinately high levels of physical and mental hereditary defects that were degrading America’s gene pool … Acting on these eugenic arguments, Congress adopted the Immigration Act of 1924, which opened the door to more immigrants from northern Europe and shut it on southern and eastern Europeans.”
The Immigration Act of 1924 was the nation’s first restrictive immigration law, and it dramatically changed the geographic and ethnic makeup of immigrants for decades to come. It included several restrictive components, including a literacy test and increased the tax paid by immigrants upon arrival. But the most pernicious component was the “national origin” quota, which capped overall immigration at 150,000 per year. Southern and eastern European immigrants fell from two-thirds in 1920–21 to about 10 percent, and Jewish immigration was gutted, from 190,000 in 1920 to just 7,000 in 1926, less than a decade before the Nazis came to power.
The Immigration Act of 1924 signified more than excluding non-northern European immigrants. For the first time, those in power were attempting to determine who could and would reproduce the nation, and it worked. The number of immigrants from what were deemed substandard countries plummeted, while immigration from “desirable” regions like northern Europe soared.
This is precisely what the Trump administration is attempting to do.
The ramifications of this kind of reproductive policing go far beyond simply limiting pregnant immigrants. It also sends a message to Black and brown citizens that they are being watched, that their bodies aren’t their own, that the State will do what it can to ensure white supremacy through demographic dominance. From tracking the menstrual cycles of pregnant undocumented teenagers to lauding Hungary’s racist “procreation, not immigration” policy, this administration continues to signal, both legally and rhetorically, that pregnant people’s bodies are not their own.
In 1924, when the Immigration Act was signed into law, both contraception and abortion were illegal. Just three years later, the Supreme Court would uphold the mandatory sterilization of Carrie Buck, a 21-year-old woman who had given birth two years as a result of rape. Buck had been declared “feeble-minded” by the state of Virginia, institutionalized, and ordered to be sterilized. Her child was taken from her and placed with another family. The Court ruled 8-1 against her, declaring that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Carrie was sterilized, as was her sister Doris and 70,000 others.
That landmark ruling is still good case law. It’s never been overturned, and tens of thousands were sterilized without their consent as a result. To be clear, the Trump administration hasn’t called for mandatory sterilization. But if the State can eliminate Black and brown immigrants, and if the State can determine who gets to access reproductive health care and who doesn’t, the State has the power to determine who gets to reproduce and who doesn’t.
Doris Buck didn’t know she had been sterilized until 50 years after the fact. She spent her entire life trying to have a family, frustrated and ultimately distraught that she and her husband couldn’t get pregnant. She never knew she was sterilized as a teenager. She was told she was having an appendectomy.
Policies like the State Department’s new visa rules don’t happen in a vacuum, and they don’t happen by accident. Pregnant people, whether immigrants or citizens, aren’t cattle to be tended. They aren’t criminals or moochers or thieves. They are human beings.
The State lied to Doris Buck for half a century. For decades, the State forcibly sterilized 70,000 people without their consent. Now, the State is blocking certain pregnant people from entering this country.
Eugenics by any other name.
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