Most Immigrants Are Women: Does the Trump Administration Want to Deport Them, or Just Keep Them Working for Low Wages?

By Laura Briggs, author of How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump

It’s always been unclear whether the goal of the Trump White House was to limit the number of undocumented immigrants in this country, or just to terrorize them and keep them as vulnerable, underpaid workforce, and the recent debate about DACA underscores that fact.

Our economy relies on immigrant labor, and needs it to be cheap—and not just for the reasons most people think. The majority of immigrants to the United States, and nearly half the undocumented population are women, and many of them are doing household labor—cleaning, caring for children, elders, and others who cannot care for themselves. They’re not doing it so the rest of us can have more down time—far from it. On average, everybody is working more. As real wages have declined, the middle class has hung on by throwing more adults into the labor force, mostly women. In 1960, 20 percent of mothers worked. Today, 70 percent of U.S. children live in households where all the adults are employed. So who’s doing the household work? Business certainly has not picked up the tab; workers in the U.S. aren’t even guaranteed sick days, never mind childcare. We haven’t raised taxes for government to pay for it, either. Indeed, the most revealing moments in the debate over the Affordable Care Act repeal were when Republicans admitted that to get Medicaid costs down, sick elders needed to get out of nursing homes and go back to living with their families (read: daughters—Paul Ryan sure wasn’t planning to go part-time to care for his mother.)

So for the whole economic calculus to work—in which women must work, but get paid less than men (to the benefit of their employers), and we don’t raise taxes to pay for government programs, something had to give. This was the brilliance of the 1990s crackdown on undocumented immigrants: it ensured that there a class of women who could be paid even less than women who were citizens, at exactly the moment when the economy most needed them. During the Clinton administration, three key things happened. Walmart became the largest single employer in the country, owing much of their “efficiency” to women’s low wages. The controversy over Zöe Baird’s nomination as attorney general—“Nannygate”—launched a nationwide enforcement crackdown on immigrants without papers, beginning with the couple that Baird was sponsoring for green cards, Lillian and Victor Cordero. And the number of middle class households hiring nannies and housekeepers began to grow exponentially.

Immigration enforcement of the sort the U.S. has been doing since then doesn’t necessarily mean all undocumented immigrants get deported. It may just make them vulnerable, trapping people in exploitative jobs. One mother of triplets told the New York Times why she wanted to hire someone who was undocumented: “I want someone who cannot leave the country… who doesn’t know anyone in New York, who basically does not have a life. I want someone who is completely dependent on me.” While some households just wanted to employ someone who was reliable and “affordable,” others were abusive and even violent. A 2012 study of household workers in fourteen cities found abysmal working conditions, with many reporting sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. Among live-in nannies, many did not even have their own bed; they were expected to sleep with the children in their care. There was also widespread wage theft, with 67% earning less than minimum wage. While race was also a factor, the single best predictor of how much people got paid was immigration status, with undocumented workers earning the least.

There’s a surprisingly clear case to be made that the Trump administration, for all its sound and fury, is not terribly interested in deporting large numbers of people. It’s not only Donald Trump’s personal history of hiring undocumented workers—the fact that Trump Tower was built by people without papers and that his modeling agency relied on them—it’s also what’s happened since he took office. For one thing, when his transition team discovered that his pick for Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, had hired an undocumented household worker—the exact thing Zöe Baird went down for—they didn’t see it as disqualifying. Rather, they had Ross withhold the information until the last minute, in his tightly controlled confirmation hearing. Apparently, the administration was fine with having key positions held by people who were in favor of illegal immigration—at Commerce, at Labor (if they hadn’t been bested by Andrew Pudzer’s critics), and in the Oval Office itself.

Most significantly, the number of deportations under Trump has actually declined, and is on track to be lower than during any year of Obama’s presidency. Arrests and detentions have increased, to be sure. While Obama, the careful lawyer, restricted the actions of ICE to arrest and detain those most likely to be deported, the Trump administration has encouraged aggressive policing, creating terror, and a huge backlog of cases awaiting a hearing in immigration court. “When you go out and you arrest a whole bunch of people willy-nilly [an immigration judge] has got to fill his docket time hearing those arguments,” John Sandweg, acting director of ICE in 2013-14, told Politico. While it’s possible that more judges would mean more deportations, many of the people picked up are later released. In other words, it’s not yet clear whether this is a campaign to make immigrants afraid, or deport them.

This raises a question about all the back and forth about DACA: is the goal really to deport young people, or is it just to raise the flag that the administration is ambivalent about immigrants getting an education and a work permit, instead of remaining part of a permanent underclass of low-paid, illegal workers. One thing is clear: U.S. immigration policy has produced the largest exploitable, deterritorialized labor force since slavery times. Many of them are women, doing “women’s work.” Any effort at immigration reform—whether for the 1 million Dreamers or the estimated 10 million other undocumented immigrants—will have to take account of household and care work. Someone still has to watch the kids.


Laura Briggs is chair and professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the author of How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics: From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump. Read the first chapter here.

Watch Laura discuss her book’s thesis, economics, race, and family on last Sunday’s episode of The Open Mind on PBS.

 


Health Care in the United States: How did we get here? What’s at stake?

The insurance—and lives—of millions of Americans hangs in the balance. With the final Senate health care vote looming, we’re turning to the following UC Press authors to help make sense of the current state of health care in the United States.

How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics:
From Welfare Reform to Foreclosure to Trump
by Laura Briggs

Today all politics are reproductive politics, argues esteemed feminist critic Laura Briggs. From longer work hours to the election of Donald Trump, our current political crisis is above all about reproduction. Households are where we face our economic realities as social safety nets get cut and wages decline. Briggs brilliantly outlines how politicians’ racist accounts of reproduction—stories of Black “welfare queens” and Latina “breeding machines”—were the leading wedge in the government and business disinvestment in families. With decreasing wages, rising McJobs, and no resources for family care, our households have grown ever more precarious over the past forty years in sharply race-and class-stratified ways. This crisis, argues Briggs, fuels all others—from immigration to gay marriage, anti-feminism to the rise of the Tea Party.


Uninsured in America:
Life and Death in the Land of Opportunity
by Susan Sered and Rushika Fernandopulle

Uninsured in America goes to the heart of why more than forty million Americans are falling through the cracks in the health care system, and what it means for society as a whole when so many people suffer the consequences of inadequate medical care. Based on interviews with 120 uninsured men and women and dozens of medical providers, policymakers, and advocates from around the nation, this book takes a fresh look at one of the most important social issues facing the United States today.


One Nation under AARP:
The Fight over Medicare, Social Security, and America’s Future
by Frederick Lynch

A fresh and even-handed account of the newly modernized AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons)—the 40-million member insurance giant and political lobby that continues to set the national agenda for Medicare and Social Security. Frederick R. Lynch addresses AARP’s courtship of 78 million aging baby boomers and the possibility of harnessing what may be the largest ever senior voting bloc to defend threatened cutbacks to Social Security, Medicare, and under-funded pension systems. Lynch argues that an ideologically divided boomer generation must decide whether to resist entitlement reductions through its own political mobilization or, by default, to empower AARP as it tries to shed its “greedy geezer” stereotype with an increasingly post-boomer agenda for multigenerational equity.


Jailcare
Finding the Safety Net for Women behind Bars
by Carolyn Sufrin

Thousands of pregnant women pass through our nation’s jails every year. What happens to them as they carry their pregnancies in a space of punishment? In this time when the public safety net is frayed, incarceration has become a central and racialized strategy for managing the poor. Using her ethnographic fieldwork and clinical work as an ob-gyn in a women’s jail, Carolyn Sufrin explores how jail has, paradoxically, become a place where women can find care. Focusing on the experiences of incarcerated pregnant women as well as on the practices of the jail guards and health providers who care for them, Jailcare describes the contradictory ways that care and maternal identity emerge within a punitive space presumed to be devoid of care.


Blind Spot
How Neoliberalism Infiltrated Global Health
by Salmaan Keshavjee & Paul Farmer

Neoliberalism has been the defining paradigm in global health since the latter part of the twentieth century. What started as an untested and unproven theory that the creation of unfettered markets would give rise to political democracy led to policies that promoted the belief that private markets were the optimal agents for the distribution of social goods, including health care.

Provocative, rigorous, and accessible, Blind Spot offers a cautionary tale about the forces driving decision making in health and development policy today, illustrating how the privatization of health care can have catastrophic outcomes for some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.


PBS documentary signals anew the pivotal character of 1995

by W. Joseph Campbell, author of 1995: The Year the Future Began

PBS is set to air on Tuesday an “American Experience” documentary about the deadliest spasm of home-grown terrorism in U.S. history, the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995.

The program revisits a crime staggering in its cruelty. The bomber, a 27-year-old Army veteran of the Gulf War named Timothy McVeigh, parked a rental truck packed with explosives outside the Murrah federal building on the morning of April 19, 1995. He said he intended to punish the federal government for episodes like the fiery disaster two years before at the Branch Davidian compound in Texas, site of a prolonged standoff with the FBI.

field-of-empty-chairs
The “field of empty chairs” outdoor memorial that occupies the site of the bombing.

On the Murrah building’s second floor, commanding a view of the street where McVeigh parked the truck, was a day-care center. Among the 168 people killed in the attack were 19 children, the youngest of whom was three-months-old.

McVeigh was executed for his crimes and his principal co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, was sentenced to life in prison.

The forthcoming documentary offers more than reexamination of a wanton terrorist attack: Its airing reminds us of the enduring significance of a watershed year — the subject of 1995: The Year the Future Began, my 2015 book with University of California Press.

It is not difficult to encounter these days telling evidence of the pivotal character of 1995. The ugly 2016 presidential campaign was made uglier by Donald Trump’s periodic references to Bill Clinton’s dalliance with a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Clinton’s clandestine affair, which nearly cost him his presidency, began in November 1995 during a partial shutdown of the federal government which, itself, became a source of lasting, bipartisan enmity in national politics.

Popular fascination still percolates about the 1995 O. J. Simpson double-murder trial — as suggested by two critically acclaimed cable series that aired last year on FX and ESPN. The programs, respectively, reenacted the case and revisited Simpson’s celebrated football career and subsequent misdeeds.

The programs were much-watched, suggesting that something in the national consciousness remains unresolved about the Simpson case. Although Simpson was acquitted of viciously killing his former wife and her friend, most Americans now believe he was guilty of the crimes.

An potent measure of lasting importance of any year lies in whether or how long its major events resonate. Clearly, the watershed moments of 1995 reverberate still.

The bombing at Oklahoma City was staggering in its toll, perplexing in its heartland setting, and done without warning. Those elements contributed to a vague but enduring sense of insecurity in America, and the bombing marked the onset of unexpectedly dangerous times.

Indeed, the bombing projected consequences that have been felt long afterward, notably in the rise of preemptive security measures that became ever tighter, and ever more conspicuous, after 1995.9780520273993

Oklahoma City was a wake-up call in domestic security. As I wrote in 1995, the bombing’s lasting consequences lie “not in awakening Americans to the deadly threat of domestic terrorism, nor in exposing vulnerabilities of American life. The epiphany was not of that sort. Rather … the bombing at Oklahoma City signaled the rise of a more guarded, more suspicious, more security-inclined America, of what can be called ‘a national psychology of fear.’”

Striking evidence of a preemptive, security-first mindset emerged soon after the bombing. Before dawn on May 20, 1995, authorities set up concrete barriers to detour vehicular traffic from two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue nearest the White House in Washington, D.C. The closure was ordered unilaterally, without notice or public debate. And it was permanent.

The capital grew bunker-like after 1995. An architecture of defensiveness became plainly visible and the numerous barriers and steel gates lent a shabby and wary look to the heart of Washington. The Washington Post observed years later that the Oklahoma City bombing “ended the capital’s life as an open city.”

Oklahoma City also re-exposed a deep flaw in American news coverage of sudden and dramatic major events: A tendency to indulge in latent stereotypes and to get it badly wrong.

In the hours after the bombing, suspicions fell squarely if vaguely on Middle East terrorism, and the news media rode that angle hard. Connie Chung, an anchor on CBS, declared, for example: “This is the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil ever. A U.S. government source has told CBS News that it has Middle East terrorism written all over it.”

Shock was thus palpable when, two days after the attack, McVeigh was arrested in the bombing and brought briefly before television cameras. The suspected terrorist was no foreigner. He was not from the Middle East. He was lanky, white, and American.


photo of W. Joseph CampbellW. Joseph Campbell is a professor at American University’s School of Communication in Washington, D.C. He is the author of six books, including 1995: The Year The Future Began.