Family Values: Made In America?

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Family Values: Made In America?

Priscilla Huang

A conservative think-tank has found "proof" that single motherhood among immigrant women is contributing to the downfall of the United States.

Last month, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a conservative anti-immigrant think-tank, released a study seeking to debunk one of President Bush's favorite comprehensive immigration reform taglines: "family values don't stop at the Rio Grande." CIS sought to disprove the "myth" that immigrants are especially committed to their families and therefore bring strong family morals to the country.

So what did the study point to as "proof" that there's no such thing as "immigrant family values?" It pointed to the high rate of single motherhood among immigrant women. The study, entitled, "Illegitimate Nation: An Examination of Out-of-wedlock Births Among Immigrants and Natives" takes a critical look at immigrant women (particularly Latinas) and frowns on the "bad" reproductive choices they've made.

Here are some of their findings:

  • Hispanic immigrants have seen the largest increase in out-of-wedlock births—from 19 percent of births in 1980 to 42 percent in 2003. This is important because Hispanics account for nearly 60 percent of all births to immigrants.
  • There's no indication of improvement over the generations. Among natives, the illegitimacy rate is 50 percent for Hispanics, 30 percent for Asian/Pacific Islanders, and 24 percent for whites.
  • 2003 is the first time that the absolute number of illegitimate births to Hispanics (immigrant and native) outnumbered illegitimate births to blacks (immigrant and native).
  • Illegitimacy also can be measured by the share of unmarried women who give birth. One out of every 12 unmarried immigrant women had a baby in 2003; for natives it was one out of 25. For Hispanic immigrants it was one in seven.
  • The high levels of out-of-wedlock births among native-born Hispanics also suggest that cultural factors play a significant role in explaining high illegitimacy in that group.
  • Our efforts to strengthen families must now take into account the impact of immigration on this growing national problem.

Interestingly, the entire study is based on the premise that giving birth as an unwed woman is bad, while giving birth as a married woman is good. This is the same principle that has driven the conservative's decades-long movement to push marriage as the solution to a host of social problems including decreased welfare dependency and promiscuity. However, as reproductive justice advocates, we recognize that "family" comes in many shapes and sizes, and that marriage does little to "fix" the underlying factors that cause poverty.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Notably, the study also cites Daniel Patrick Moynihan's infamous 1965 report, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," which attacked the matriarchal structure of poor African-American families and proposed military enlistment for young black men as the solution to the "deterioration of the Negro family." Both the Moynihan report and the CIS study assume that nuclear family structures are the ideal standard and both dismiss alternative family structures—particularly those that are headed by single or unmarried women—as morally destructive and socially deviant.

In addition, it's important to note the more underhanded reason that the CIS study compares the out of wedlock birth rates of immigrant women to that of African-American women: to divide communities of color on the immigration debate. The sexual and reproductive decisions of women of color have always come under scrutiny, and the United States (along with many countries in the Global North) has a long history of trying to control the fertility of low-income women of color. As such, women's bodies have long been the political battleground for oppressive policy-making. Immigration reform is no different.

If reproductive justice means, as it does at NAPAWF, that women and girls have the right to make well-informed decisions about their bodies, health, sexualities, families, and communities, then we must ensure that feminist viewpoints are inserted loud and clear in the immigration debate. As the Senate continues debate on its compromise immigration bill—which proposes to remove most family-based categories for immigration, a process that has allowed most immigrant women to enter the U.S.—immigrant women may lose all hope of reuniting with their loved ones.

As the study suggests, immigrant motherhood is also seen as a national security threat. Conservatives view immigrant women's wombs as the gateway to anchor babies and so-called "chain migration." (Let me be clear that chain migration IS a myth; the average immigrant sponsors just 1.2 family members to the U.S.) Some liberal groups have also become critical of immigrant women of reproductive age because of the fear that immigrant families will trigger overpopulation. Yet the underlying concern in both camps is that immigrant women, on average, give birth to more children than non-immigrant women and therefore threaten to overcome the country's slowing (white) population. In an effort to deter immigrant women from giving birth, Congress has responded to these fears by introducing bills that would deny birthright citizenship, a right conferred by the 14th Amendment, to the children of undocumented women.

Clearly, immigrant rights and immigration reform are reproductive justice issues. We must stand together and ensure that all women, regardless of their citizenship status, have the ability to make healthy reproductive and life choices.

(For more on this perspective and an anti-violence take on the meaning of family, check out the Women of Color blog.)

Topics and Tags:

Immigration, Women of Color