Immigration and eugenics in the United States

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As you read this, migrant women detained at the US-Mexico border are being sterilized.  

Dawn Wooten, a nurse within a migrant detention center in Georgia, became a whistleblower last week when she reported that a doctor there for years has performed a high rate of hysterectomies — the removal of the uterus — on detained women. Given America’s treatment of whistleblowers historically, Wooten took a great risk against her life to spread the news of these atrocities and we should consider her a hero. 

Dawn’s claims, consistent with numerous other eyewitness reports, state that the operations are done without the consent of the women patients. However, given the violent and illegal circumstances of ICE detention centers, the notion of immigrants detained by ICE being able to consent to anything is suspect. 

This is just one report. However, the US agency of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has a horrendous track record in civil rights. Often, detained migrants lack access to many basic human rights including food, water, shelter, medical care and legal resources among others necessary for survival. As a result of these conditions, dozens of children and other detainees have died in ICE custody during recent years, and during COVID-19, detained immigrants have one of the highest rates of infection and casualty rates from the virus among all populations. Most relevant to the overwhelmingly Latinx migrant detainees, ICE leadership is frequently under suspicion and outrage for links to neo-nazi and other white-supremacist groups. It would be far beyond us to assume that this sterilization is an isolated incident given ICE’s history of promoting human rights violations.  

Dawn’s claims, consistent with numerous other eyewitness reports, state that the operations are done without the consent of the women patients.

This is just one report. However, the US agency of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has a horrendous track record in civil rights. Often, detained migrants lack access to many basic human rights including food, water, shelter, medical care and legal resources among others necessary for survival. As a result of these conditions, dozens of children and other detainees have died in ICE custody during recent years, and during COVID-19, detained immigrants have one of the highest rates of infection and casualty rates from the virus among all populations. Most relevant to the overwhelmingly Latinx migrant detainees, ICE leadership is frequently under suspicion and outrage for links to neo-nazi and other white-supremacist groups. It would be far beyond us to assume that this sterilization is an isolated incident given ICE’s history of promoting human rights violations.  

But more importantly than analyzing ICE, we should remember that the motivation to sterilize minorities is not new to America. The term eugenics refers to the organized, selective reproduction of human beings with the intent to promote supposedly superior traits such as skin color and to eliminate supposedly inferior traits including neurodivergence and homosexuality. This term is close to our country’s history.  

The desire on behalf of dominant white populations in the US to change racial, ethnic and cultural demographics can be traced back to centuries old “assimilation” policies which included forceful relocation of entire indegenous populations and kidnapping thousands of indegenous children to be raised by white families. Eugenics in the United States is also undeniably influenced by our country’s chattel slavery and the the slave industry’s manegement for profit.  

As many as 70,000 Americans with mental illness or developmental disabilities were sterilized from the 1920s to the 1970s

Eugenics was most dominant in US racial theory during the early 19th and early 20th centuries as scholars applied evolutionary theory to humans within an ideology known as social darwinism. Izabela Tringali and Martha Kinsella of the Brennan Center for Justice describe the extent of government sterilization efforts within the 20th century:  

“As many as 70,000 Americans with mental illness or developmental disabilities were sterilized from the 1920s to the 1970s… A survey of Puerto Rico residents in 1965 found that about 35 percent of all Puerto Rican mothers ages 20 to 49 had been sterilized. By the 1970s, as many as 25 percent of Native American women ages 15 to 44 had been sterilized. Between 1909 and 1979, California performed one-third of all government-funded sterilizations in the country, largely targeting Latino and Black people.” 

The United States has such a rich history of white-supremacy and eugenics that as Hitler rose to power in Nazi germany, the country sent a team of top German lawyers to visit the United States, study American racial laws and apply these studies to the creation of Nazi laws which would eventually facilitate the holocaust. 

It’s worth asking why this is the case.  

The sterilization of marginalized populations in the United States touches a crucial intersection between the exploitation of labor and white-supremacy. On one hand, the United States has a capitalist economy and capitalists are interested in driving down the cost of labor — wages — by expanding the workforce. The more workers living here, the less it costs employers to hire each of them for a given job. Its basic economics — supply and demand. This explains ruling class arguments for growing the U.S. population wildly beyond our resources

On the other hand, race and ethnicity are crucial political factors in any society. Changing demographics of workers in the United States promises profound shifts in the dynamics of power here. From a perspective of power relations, racial categories such as “white”, “black” and “asian” have meaning so far as they are opposed to other categories — if the category of white is to offer any benefit to white people, it must be because there are non-whites who contribute labor to society yet can be excluded from the total benefit of these labors on the basis of their race. 

If we view politics as a contest for power between different people, and racial categories are one way of mediating this power contest, then it’s clear that the predominantly white American status-quo will be interested in having certain numbers of people from each race living here. This may help to explain the sterilizations of marginalized populations we see continuing today: in addition to individual racists having access to positions of authority in government, influencing racial demographics may help maintain American white-supremacy as an entire system.  

So long as eugenics and racism have any influence on U.S. culture, some immigrants, legal or illegal, will be subject to sterilization and other inhumane treatments. The underlying reality is that no human being should be criminalized. Immigrants, often faced with years of waiting times, migrate to the United States seeking basic living conditions often missing from their home countries due to the U.S. military and economic imperialism. 

We need to abolish ICE and ensure the universal human rights of citizenship and freedom of movement — this is the first step to protecting immigrants from flagrant human rights abuses. 

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