Who Would Jesus Deport?


Immigration and Women: Understanding the American Experience

By Susan C. Pearce, Elizabeth J. Clifford, and Reena Tandon

New York: New York University Press, 2011, 309 pp., $26.00, paperback


National Insecurities: Immigrants and US Deportation Policy Since 1882

By Deirdre M. Moloney

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012, 315 pp., $34.95, hardcover


“I Am an American”: Filming the Fear of Difference

By Cynthia Weber

Bristol: Intellect, 2011, 223 pp., $35.00, paperback


Reviewed by Katarzyna Marciniak

In the American popular cultural imagination, the typical immigrant is a working-class Mexican or Central American man. This stereotype, often accompanied by the rhetoric of fear and criminalization, persists despite statistical evidence that approximately fifty percent of all global migrants are women, and that today women and girls constitute the majority of legal immigrants to the US. In immigration policy making and scholarship, too, there is a curious silence surrounding the presence of foreign-born women as contributors to the cultures of this country. If women appear in immigration discussions, it is often in the context of anti-immigrant, nativist, and racist discourse, where they emerge as demonized, overfertile carriers of “anchor babies,” or “jackpot babies”—US-born citizens who will supposedly enable their mothers to gain residency and access public benefits.

The purpose of Immigration and Women, by Susan C. Pearce, Elizabeth J. Collins, and Reena Tandon, is to rectify both silence and demonization. The book’s underpinning principle is that immigration is not a universal but rather a gender-specific experience. Thus, the authors explain, “[T]aking a gender lens in research on immigration is not only an attempt to understand immigrant women. It is an attempt to understand immigration.” Methodologically, their research is informed by intersectionality, a conceptual matrix that recognizes different vectors of identity, such as gender, race, ethnicity, social class, and nationality, as interlocked and functioning simultaneously. The authors’ contribution to the discourse of intersectionality is their insistence that “nativity” is another crucial social location, which intersects with the other vectors; in other words, it matters whether a woman was born in the US or elsewhere, whether she is a native or a foreigner.

The book is grounded in the gendered history of US immigration and offers readers a wealth of information on what the authors call “contexts of exit”—events such as wars, internal displacements, political and religious persecution, or poverty—and “contexts of reception”—the policies and laws that regulate immigration systems.

Their overarching argument is that “since the earliest years of US formation, gender ideologies have contributed to the scripting of immigration policy.” They demonstrate this by examining both racist and sexist exclusionary laws, which have historically regulated access to citizenship, explaining that

Full citizenship, of course, which would entail suffrage, as well as property, political, and other rights, was not available to any women—whether native- or foreign-born—until the twentieth century. Nevertheless, women could be granted the title of US citizen without this full set of rights.

For example, in the early twentieth century, a white woman could gain citizenship if she was joining her already naturalized husband—a process called derivative citizenship. But, as a married woman, she did not have an immigration status independent from her husband. Nonwhite women were subject as well to racial eligibility criteria, prescribed by laws different from those applied to whites. For example, the 1875 Page Law, in addition to excluding felons and contracted laborers, excluded Asian women considered to be brought to this country for “lewd and immoral purposes.” This effectively prevented them from attempting to immigrate.

This context forms the background of the main body of the book—interviews with a diverse group of adult immigrant women, who discuss their contexts of exit and reception, as well as their work, education, expectations, professional paths, family situations, activist involvement, and so on. Their descriptions of their exit circumstances are especially important, as these are often ignored in discourse about immigration, at least in the mainstream press. The authors use “a storytelling style” to convey the material they gathered from the interviews, presenting portions of the first-person interviews interwoven with summaries of the women’s narratives. Out of this weaving, a tapestry emerges of the voices of first generation women from Bulgaria, Colombia, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Iran, Nepal, Panama, Poland, Romania, Russia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Zambia, and many other countries. What the authors observe, again and again, is that most of the women are not passive participants in the immigration process but rather astute agents of their own fates. Some, such as Nadia, jailed in Iran for her political activism, leave their countries fleeing gender-specific persecution. Nadia pays smugglers to help her escape and walks to Turkey; later she moves from Turkey to Italy and eventually arrives in the US as a refugee. Others, such as Betty, from Hong Kong, come to the US as students pursuing higher education. Some come through the “front door” (legally); others through the “back door” (illegally). Some say that their transitions were smooth and relatively uncomplicated; others, such as Reyna, who was forced to leave her native Honduras because she feared for her life and swam across the Rio Grande river, offer harrowing stories.

Each section of the book closes with recommendations for policy changes that would improve the status of immigrant women. For example, the authors question the law that bans international students’ spouses from seeking employment, asking,

Should not a student spouse have the right to work legally, since her presence in the United States could potentially hurt her own career due to the employment gap on her resume, reduce income opportunities for her family, and make her fully dependent on her spouse for both income and legal status?

            While many Americans are familiar with inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric, with its denigrating tropes of invasion, parasitism, and disease, most know little about what legalizing one’s status in this country actually entails. The myth of so-called illegal aliens who mercilessly drain the welfare system is perhaps the most enduring one—even though undocumented immigrants have no access to welfare benefits (they may attend public schools and receive public health care). In anti-immigrant discourse, “illegality” is associated with criminality and immorality, while “legality” is moral and just. This static and binarized understanding can be difficult to challenge, which is why the chapters “‘I Had to Leave My Country One Day’: Entering through the Back Door” and “I Am Not Only a Domestic Worker; I Am a Woman” are particularly eye-opening. Both testify to the existence of gray areas between being documented and undocumented, and dismantle the rigid, legal/illegal opposition. Indeed, “irregular status” can result from a myriad of situations. Some women enter the US illegally while others “fall out of status”: they arrive legally but, through a variety of circumstances, at times beyond their control, they become “visa overstayers.” Some have themselves smuggled into the US; others are trafficked for sex work and other labor. Still others arrive as mail-order brides, brought here by “consumer husbands” who, disillusioned by American women, want “a more traditional woman” from abroad, particularly Asia and the former Soviet Union.

In the private sector, large numbers of immigrant women of color are employed as domestics—live-in nannies, house-cleaners, cooks—in an unregulated, gendered, exploitative “economy of servitude.” As Meenu from India remarks, “They say women are respected here. As an immigrant woman, all you have is to clean others’ dirt.” Women domestics must often depend on their employers’ willingness to maintain their documented status, thus placing them in positions of extreme vulnerability and dependence.

The final sections of the book, which focus on immigrant women’s cultural and political work, are especially invigorating for those with an interest in the transformative potential of aesthetics. The women participate in the visual and performing arts, writing, storytelling, and photography. The authors stress what they term “resistant agency,” that is, the women’s activism in social causes to improve their lives. Overall, the book avoids presenting foreign-born women as unfortunates who need help, pity, or empathy.  Instead, it offers stories of successful, strong, community-oriented women who, in many cases, are inspirational leaders.

Focused on unraveling the complex issues of detention, deportation, and citizenship rights in the US, National Insecurities, by the social historian Deirdre M. Moloney, reveals the roots of anti-immigrant rage in the US—which, as the book shows, is not new. It has been expressed in a multitude of exclusionary laws, including the 1875 Page Law, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and others that excluded immigrants on the bases of poverty, morality, physical health, or political or religious beliefs. Eugenics ideology—that is, the belief in racial superiority—was a crucial motivator for the passage of such laws, even though racial identification has always been slippery and fluctuating: Moloney notes that Mexicans, for example, were initially defined as white in the federal census, while these days they are seen as people of color. Exclusionary rules functioned as social filters, preserving citizenship for Christian, Anglo-Saxon whites. Racial anxieties about the supposed threat to whites of the influx of immigrants resulted in particular scrutiny of immigrant women, writes Moloney:

In 1903 Theodore Roosevelt famously expressed his concern that, by limiting family size, elite native-born white women were committing “race suicide,” while immigrants, African Americans, and others continued to bear large numbers of children.

Increasingly restrictive US immigration policies emerged between 1882 and 1921. During this period, both men and women were subject to either deportation or exclusion at the border, but the treatment of women was decidedly different and more surveillant. Women were especially vulnerable to the so-called LPC—likely to become a public charge—provision. Unmarried women, especially if they were pregnant, were perceived as morally dubious and likely to engage in prostitution. During their deportation hearings, women, often without legal representation, were questioned about their sexual practices and histories. Moloney explains,

[R]egulating nonmarital sexuality at the borders, including nonmarital births and common-law marriage, ensured that the immigrant women who were admitted would become both moral citizens themselves and the mothers of moral citizens.

Through impressive archival research, she documents, in case after case, how women’s fates depended on their adherence to heteronormative standards. Their journey toward citizenship was always navigated by men: husbands, former husbands, spurned lovers, immigration officers, or deportation hearing officials. Although all women were under scrutiny, especially if they were migrating without husbands (Irish women, Moloney notes, had a long history of migrating alone), nonwhite women from the Middle East, Asia, and the Caribbean were particularly vulnerable.

At the heart of Immigration and Women and National Insecurities lies the idea of sanctioned Americanness: who counts as a “proper” American citizen. This idea is the central issue in Cynthia Weber’s innovative book “I Am an American”: Filming the Fear of Difference. An international politics scholar who is also a politically engaged video artist, Weber has created a highly readable, hybrid project—part memoir, part US history, part cultural anthropology. The book starts with the well-known “I am an American” series of public service announcements (PSAs), prepared for the American Ad Council after 9/11 terrorist attacks as a tactic to promote unity in the face of national crisis. In these ads, carefully selected US citizens of various ages, races, and ethnicities look at the camera and declare “I am an American.” The US flag is a crucial visual element, as is the US motto, E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One). The point is obvious: the nation comprises a multicultural citizenry. Weber argues that, despite its progressive intentions, the “I am an American” PSA did not prevent a severe antiminority backlash. She claims that the War on Terror was waged both abroad and at home—and that on the home front the War on Terror turned into a War on Immigration that was about not only citizens and noncitizens but also about the “right kinds” of US citizens.

Weber’s book, structured as a diary of her travels across the US, features vignettes that ingeniously mimic the PSA format: Weber photographs her subjects purposely emulating the frontal composition and the presence of the flag. The video portraits reprinted in the book present a gallery of “unsafe” citizens, women who do not neatly fit into the multicultural paradigm of the PSAs: Elvira Arellano, an undocumented mother who, ignoring her deportation order because she has a child born in the US, seeks refuge in a Chicago church; Cindy Sheehan, a peace activist who camps outside George W. Bush’s Texas ranch demanding a response to her question, “For what noble cause did my son Casey die in Iraq?”; Ofelia Rivas, whose only form of identification is a Tohono O’odham Nation card that bears no mention of her US citizenship, and who is a founder of O’odham Voice Against the Wall, which opposes the construction of a fence along the US-Mexico border, which cuts across the O’odham Nation; and Julia Shearson, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who is suing the US government to demand her removal from the Terrorist Watch List. Weber documents her conversations with these “unsafe women” as each reflects on complex issues of rights, patriotism, and tolerance. The interviews disclose the limits of belonging and citizenship and show an “uneasy relationship between One US nation and the Many US Americans who do not fit comfortably into the specific post-9/11 US ideal of unity,” writes Weber.

Weber’s interviewees modify the statement, “I Am An American”: Arellano wears a teeshirt that asks, “Who Would Jesus Deport?”; Sheehan signs her portrait, “I am a Peace Mom and I am an American”; Rivas says, “My nation is divided by an international border and I am an O’odham American”; and Shearson declares “I am number 384610 on the Terrorist Watch List, and I am an American.” Their voices constitute a creative intervention into the idea of a “real” American. Weber calls them “hauntologies”: they haunt a nation that allows difference only if it is tightly controlled and monitored.

In the courses I teach on transnational cinema and literature, the issues of foreignness, immigration, and difference emerge as central. These themes often confound my students. Like most people, they often have little sense of historical context when it comes to the US immigration. This lack of historical awareness is compounded by the fact that we hardly ever hear the voices and points of view of those who are the focus of the immigration debate in the US. Instead, we hear what the postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha calls “demonic repetition” of anti-immigrant sentiments. The three books under review stand out as valuable pedagogical sources, which can provide students and others with a nuanced understanding of the historically contested character of American nationality.

Katarzyna Marciniak, professor of transnational studies in the Department of English at Ohio University, is the author of Alienhood: Citizenship, Exile, and the Logic of Difference (2006) and, with Imogen Tyler, co-editor of forthcoming Immigrant Protest: Politics, Aesthetics, and Everyday Dissent.

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