Who Would Jesus Deport?
Immigration and Women: Understanding the American Experience
By Susan C. Pearce, Elizabeth J. Clifford, and Reena Tandon
National Insecurities: Immigrants and US Deportation Policy Since 1882
By Deirdre M. Moloney
“I Am an American”: Filming the Fear of Difference
By Cynthia Weber
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
[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
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
Weber’s book, structured as a diary of her travels across the
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
Katarzyna Marciniak, professor of transnational studies in the Department of English at