We do not know yet whether 2018 will be the “year of the woman” in the midterm elections, but it’s worth reflecting on one of several particularly low points for women’s rights this past year. President Donald Trump’s policy of separating parents crossing the southern border from their children opened a new front in his efforts to demonize immigrants – using not only racial stereotypes, but also gender tropes. While Trump has begun to abandon the family separation policy in the face of withering criticism, it is important to probe what motivated it and why the administration has been slow to reverse it and to reunite the parents and their children.
It is clear that Trump’s family separation approach is part of his broader strategy to racialize immigration policy and thereby reduce sympathy for immigrants. Even before he took office, he announced a travel ban on Muslims and labeled Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists. Since his inauguration, Trump has continued to make blanket generalizations, referring for example to Haiti and African countries as “sh*thole” countries. He also pardoned Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of violating a court order enjoining him from racial profiling of immigrants. And now, Trump is stoking racial fears with unsubstantiated, baseless claims that “unknown Middle Easterners” are marching in a “migrant caravan” toward the U.S. southern border from Central America and Mexico.
If there was ever any doubt that racist stereotypes underlie Trump’s approach to immigration, his July NATO trip reconfirmed the pattern when he scolded Europeans for their immigration policies – not on the traditional security or economic grounds, but on the grounds of “culture” – a clear reference to race and racial purity. In a nod to white nationalists at home, Trump claimed that “allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame. I think it changed the fabric of Europe…. I think you are losing your culture.”
With the family separation policy, Trump has added sexist stereotypes to his demonization strategy. Instead of merely stoking racial fears about troubles caused by brown immigrants, Trump has tapped into Americans’ fear of fertile brown mothers as a drain on the state. In short, he has updated the “welfare queen” trope that President Ronald Reagan used to disparage black women in the 1980s.
According to the stereotype, irresponsible black women have too many babies in order to extract a steady welfare check from the government. Today, we are told bad immigrant mothers play a similar game to gain entry to the United States. These women allegedly ransom their children at the border in exchange for a fast track to citizenship. Under this logic, “fairness” demands that these would-be welfare queens be separated from their children and prosecuted. Alternatively, the entire family should be deported instead of giving the family an unfair advantage on the path to American residence and citizenship.
Similarities between the pathologizing of so called “welfare mothers” and immigrant mothers abound in Trump’s rhetoric. On the campaign trail, Trump complained about “anchor babies,” claiming that women in Mexico “move over here [to the United States] for a couple of days [and] they have the baby.” Since he became president, he continues to echo Reagan’s “welfare queen” stereotype in his constant invocation of “the problem” of “chain migration,” which he calls “a disaster,” because supposedly one immigrant can rapidly bring in “24 family members[.]”
Straight from Reagan’s Playbook
In reality, it typically takes years – even decades – to bring a relative to the country. Moreover, it now appears that the president’s own in-laws – Melania Trump’s parents – became citizens through so-called chain migration. But Trump’s critique of the program is straight from Reagan’s playbook. Reagan trotted out the story of Linda Taylor, whom he characterized as a welfare cheat who “used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare, [whose] tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.” While referred to as “an indolent black woman,” Linda Taylor’s racial identity is not clear and at least some official records reflect that she was, in fact, white (an ambiguity which underscores how racial constructs can be manipulated to achieve a variety of ends). Trump, like Reagan, uses race and gender stereotypes to achieve particular policy goals and to mobilize the conservative base.
Trump conveniently ignores the fact that unauthorized immigration from Mexico has dropped since the 2007-2009 recession. Instead, Trump refers to immigrants coming across the southern border as “an infestation,” in the same way that black residents moving into predominantly white neighborhoods have been described. He conflates immigrants who are fleeing gang violence in Central America with the MS-13 gang members who are perpetrating violence in the United States. This effort to elide survivors with perpetrators of violence is a slight of the rhetorical hand to try to reduce all immigrants from Latin America to criminals and is quite similar to the demonization that African Americans have long challenged.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recent comments sweep away any doubts about the administration’s linkage of the black and Latino poor. In his view, the border policy that separates parents from children is identical to internal policies that allow the government to disproportionately criminalize African Americans and Latinos by taking away their children upon incarceration. Sessions recently “joked” that separating children from their mothers at the border is the same as separating kids from criminals who are incarcerated, a massive problem facing over-policed, poor black communities. Even more haunting, there is evidence that some of Latino refugees have found their rights as parents extinguished and their children placed in white American foster homes.
Sessions also flippantly noted that critics of the family separation policy live in “gated communities, many of them, and are featured at events where you have to have an ID to even come in and hear them speak,” and where “if you try to scale the fence, believe me, they’ll be even too happy to have you arrested and separated from your children.” By dog whistling to suburban whites, Sessions is merely enforcing external policies that have already been normalized internally to contain and control African Americans and Latinos in the United States.
Welfare anxieties have proven such a potent force that the administration has also offered related policy proposals to dog whistle to people’s fears about fertile brown women. In August of last year, Trump proposed the RAISE Act to prevent new immigrants from collecting welfare. As Trump put it, “They’re not going to come in and just immediately go and collect welfare” and “those seeking to immigrate into our country … should not be able to use welfare for themselves or the household for a period of at least five years.”
What can we do about this? We can remain alert and learn how to spot when the welfare queen rhetoric is being used to manipulate us. Fortunately, the news media, immigrant rights activists, and social justice lawyers are on the case. Media sources have helped tell the stories of immigrant parents and children to humanize them. The public now recognizes immigrant children as our neighbors, as the friends of our own children. The legal strategy and activism have successfully forced Trump to reverse course and reunite at least some of the families.
But we must remain vigilant. The administration has been slow to comply with the court’s orders, because, after all, Trump sees Latina women (and their children) through the lens of the “welfare queen” stereotype and cannot imagine the pain these mothers feel for their children. He cannot see the children as future citizens, but instead views them as threats to the state who must be removed along with their parents.
As we move into the midterm elections, rather than allow Trump to reinvigorate the “new welfare queen” trope, it’s time to simply retire this tired motif and envision women – all women – in our full humanity. We can have a genuine debate about immigration policy, but it should not be informed by disingenuous rhetoric grounded in racial and sexist stereotypes, which only serve to distort the debate. Even worse, they deny us the opportunity to see the human dignity and real potential among those who seek to cross our Southern border.
IMAGE: Members of a migrant caravan rush onto the bridge between Guatemala and Mexico after pushing past Guatemalan police on October 19, 2018, in Ciudad Tecun Uman, Guatemala. The caravan of thousands of immigrants, mostly from Honduras, crossed the bridge and pried open the gate into Mexico but were pushed back by Mexican riot police. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)