On Feb. 22, a young Honduran migrant woman went into premature labor and gave birth to a stillborn baby boy at the Port Isabel Detention Center in South Texas, four days after being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The incident raises new questions about the detention of pregnant migrant women, and concerns that border control officials are infringing on the reproductive rights of migrant women and undermining their health and that of their babies. And there’s reason to worry: Such actions have historically been frequent and quite intentional. Nativist movements have long feared the reproductive capacity of migrant women and its potential for changing the demographic contours of the United States. This incident, and others like it, remind us once again how deeply intertwined women’s rights are with questions of immigration today.
In 1901, a Japanese teenager named Kaoru Yamataya arrived in Seattle visibly pregnant. Her pregnancy made Yamataya a target of a zealous immigration inspector named Thomas Fisher. Fisher claimed that Yamataya was “likely to become a public charge,” grounds for deportation under the dominant immigration law, and took her into U.S. custody. Two months after her arrival, Yamataya gave birth to a baby boy. Two months later, the infant died of pneumonia while he and his mother were still in the custody of the U.S. government.
This death created hardly a ripple in the press, a sign of shifting winds in U.S. immigration policy. Targeting women, particularly of Asian descent, as “public charges” was already commonplace. Its roots were in the Page Law of 1875, which barred contract laborers and prostitutes from “any Oriental country” from entering the United States. The Page Law created a system of immigration control that targeted women’s sexual practices.
But Yamataya’s case was at the leading edge of this desire to control immigrant women’s bodies extending to include greater focus on their reproductive capabilities. By 1924, Sen. James D. Phelan (Calif.) openly pleaded with Congress to pass legislation to exclude all Japanese women because, as he falsely claimed, they accounted for 33 percent of all births in California. Phelan’s fear was that “every child born is an American citizen under our very generous Constitution, intended to encourage population by European immigration of an earlier date when Asia was a closed book. What a Pandora’s box we opened when Admiral Perry went there and opened the gates of Japan!”
While Fisher said nothing so explicit in adjudicating Yamataya’s case, he pushed forward with the deportation process despite the death of her son. The inspector charged Yamataya with entering the United States under “surreptitiously clandestine” intentions, code for prostitution. Throughout the hearing in 1903, Yamataya denied the charge. She claimed to have immigrated to the United States for educational purposes, a claim backed by family members on both sides of the Pacific. Still, Fisher was unrelenting, and the law was on his side, giving him discretionary power to interpret and execute the law as he wished.
But Yamataya refused to give up the fight. She retained legal counsel, who argued that the 1891 Immigration Act was unconstitutional because it had deprived her of due process of law. Her attorney argued that Fisher whose “inspection” of Yamataya and subsequent investigation was “garbled, incomplete, misleading, and in many respects untrue” detained her unlawfully. During Fisher’s proceeding, Yamataya did not have adequate counsel nor did she receive an opportunity to present evidence to counter Fisher’s claims against her. Finally, she was not given the opportunity to consult with a language interpreter, made all the worse by the fact that Yamataya did not speak any English. At the time of Fisher’s initial investigation Yamataya had not even realized she was under investigation.
Yamataya’s case went to the Supreme Court, and on April 6, 1903, the court upheld the constitutionality of Immigration Act of 1891, as well as Yamataya’s deportation. However, it also established an immigrant’s right to a deportation hearing. Unfortunately for Yamataya, the court ruled that the ad hoc hearing conducted by Fisher and his colleagues constituted a legitimate hearing, and she returned to Japan in 1906.
Cases like Yamataya’s or that of the Honduran woman have become a major flash point over the past two decades, as a new nativist movement focuses on the threat that migrant mothers, especially those visibly pregnant, pose to their conceptions of America. The key is, as Phelan lamented nearly a century ago, the birthright citizenship enshrined in the 14th Amendment. This provision guarantees citizenship to all who are born in the United States, including the children of immigrant parents.
In 1994, fears that migrants taking advantage of this provision could dramatically alter the racial and ethnic composition of America spurred the passage of California Proposition 187, dubbed the Save our State initiative, which sought to bar undocumented immigrants from accessing education, welfare and health-care services. This measure targeted migrant women and children, particularly those of Mexican and Central American origins.
In the 21st century, such fears drove the rise of a new term: anchor babies. The Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington popularized this phrase in the early 2000s to pejoratively refer to the American-born children of undocumented immigrants, and it stuck, giving nativists a new language to express their fears.
But this new language should not obscure the reality: Suspicions about migrant women’s reproduction have historically shaped immigration policy and practice. Given this history, we need to understand the current immigration crisis from a different perspective. At stake are not just migrant rights, but women’s rights as well.
Activism to safeguard women’s reproductive rights must extend to migrant women. Women’s rights groups should be demanding answers to an array of questions surrounding the 24-year-old Honduran women who gave birth to a stillborn while in ICE custody: What were the circumstances surrounding her premature labor? Was she given proper medical attention and care? Did she suffer additional abuse because of her visible pregnancy?
Migrant mothers, whether carrying a child in their wombs or in their arms, have faced the brunt of anti-immigration fervor, and they need allies to publicize such abuses and to mobilize to change the law that has failed women for over a century.