Mothers “Dropping” Babies?!


First, congratulations to Elena Kagan for being the fourth woman chosen to the U. S. Supreme Court. I have written about Kagan’s love for Pride and Prejudice here, as well as the reasons why, given a choice, it’s better to have a Pride and Prejudice lover than a Wuthering Heights lover on the Court (click here).

Second, let’s give a prayer of thankfulness that British Petroleum has managed to plug the well following the worst oil disaster in U. S. history and that, while the ecosystem has been badly damaged, it is not a bad as it could have been. A list of my posts on the spoil can be found here.

And now, on to a non-issue, the latest instance of cynically induced hysteria by the ideologues amongst us: the commotion over “anchor babies.” This “threat” has certain Republicans calling for no less than the repeal of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

The term “anchor baby” comes from rightwing pundit Lou Dobbs, who has claimed that immigrants are making their way into the U.S. and having babies, who will then be their “anchor” to eventual citizenship. The 14th Amendment bestows American citizenship on anyone born in the United States, including the children of illegal immigrants. It is also the amendment that bestowed citizenship upon former slaves following the Civil War. It asserts that all citizens are equal under the law and was the basis for the Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation suit.

It’s bad enough when rightwing xenophobes engage in cultural stereotyping. But when even principled politicians descend into the muck, I think about throwing up my hands in despair. First there was John McCain talking about illegal immigrants deliberately causing car accidents. Now it’s Senator of Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican who stood up to President Bush on the issue of torture, trying to work us into a frenzy over immigrant mothers. Here’s what he said recently:

People come here to have babies.  They come here to drop a child. It’s called, ‘drop and leave.’ To have a child in America, they cross the border, they go to the emergency room, have a child, and that child’s automatically an American citizen. That shouldn’t be the case. That attracts people here for all the wrong reasons.

A little fact checking is useful here. First of all, currently illegal immigration is down. Second, a statistically insignificant number of people (if any at all) are doing this—certainly not enough to warrant messing with the Constitution of the United States.

Think about this for a moment.  Mothers don’t see themselves as “dropping” babies. Furthermore, the plan doesn’t make sense. As Connie Schultz of the Cleveland Plain Dealer points out,

Every immigrant’s American child must turn 21 before sponsoring mom or dad. That’s two decades plus one year before parents can even apply. If the parents haven’t lived legally in the United States for at least the previous year, they have to go back to their home country, and wait 10 years to try again.

But setting all that aside, what particularly troubles me is Graham’s language, which is designed to rob immigrants of their humanity. The people who talk about mothers “dropping babies” are those who see them as animals. It is significant that this is not the first time the verb has been used in conjunction with childbirth. I have in mind the English language’s most famous (or infamous) essay.

In A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parent or country and for making them beneficial to the public, Jonathan Swift, as you probably know, imagines a “humane” essayist coming up with the perfect solution for Ireland’s poverty problem: turn its babies into dinner and export them to England.  (You can read the essay in its entirety here.)

The essay is brilliantly argued and, if one puts aside one “nice, unnecessary scruple” (to quote a line from Gulliver’s Travels), one may even find it convincing. The scruple, of course, is the value we attach (or should attach) to human life.

As he makes his case for the cost effectiveness of his proposal, Swift’s speaker writes the following passage:

It is true, a child just dropped from its dam may be supported by her milk for a solar year, with little other nourishment; at most not above the value of 2s., which the mother may certainly get, or the value in scraps, by her lawful occupation of begging . . .

I can’t begin to do justice to the brilliance of Swift satire or the number of targets that he skewers. For our purposes here, I note that Swift shows how, once we use language to dehumanize people, we are then capable of practically any atrocity. The Modest Proposer, under the guise of a humane and civilizing project, cold-bloodedly conceptualizes people as animals to be slaughtered.  e even provides recipes! His logic is almost irresistible.

Similarly, if hoards of Latina mothers are pouring across our borders and “dropping” their babies on American soil—say, like the monster mother in the movie Aliens— then by all means it makes sense to tamper with our sacred freedoms to stop them.

Swift, interestingly enough, was a conservative’s conservative and his target in 1728 was the liberals of his day, those people who thought that, through the scientific principles of social engineering, they could construct a brave new world. Their conceptual maneuver was to ignore that they were dealing with people, whom they saw instead as building blocks to be pushed around in the service of “higher” ends. Swift, pessimistic about human nature, had no illusions about what might happen once people started getting pushed around in these ways.

It’s not easy being a true Swiftian conservative these days. Societies have become so complex and populations have grown so large that seeing people as people rather than as demographic categories is a challenge. But that being said, we must regularly remind ourselves that we are dealing with human beings. We can’t let cynical politicians and rabble rousing media personalities twist our views through such assaults on language.  Hold as a credo rather the great words of the Roman playwright Terence: “”I am a man: I hold that nothing human is alien to me.”

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  1. By Lit and Shared Political Conversations on December 31, 2010 at 12:10 am

    […] mothers sneaking across the border to “drop” babies for citizenship purposes (this led to a post on Jonathan Swift’s “Modest […]


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