ICE, Natalism, and the Nationalist State
Newsletter for June 1, 2021
Sheriff Mark Lamb on Breitbart News.
“After what a certain administration did to the FBI, to federal law enforcement, and the intelligence community, we’ve lost faith in them, and there is—there is at least, thank the good Lord—the sheriff system across the nation, and good men like Sheriff Mark Lamb are indeed one of the last lines of defense.”
In the past few weeks, ICE canceled two contracts – one with a private prison in Louisiana and one with the Massachusetts-Trumpian Sheriff Thomas Hodgson – and Sheriff Richard Jones of Butler County, Ohio, “voluntarily” pulled out of his contract with ICE to hold people await deportation (called an ISGA contract).
At the same time, sheriffs affiliated with the far-right Protect American Now group have been waging a PR campaign against the Biden administration, accusing it of immigration policies that are dramatically increasing border crossings, and fanning the flames of anti-immigration sentiment. Sheriff Mark Lamb has posed for multiple networks in the desert, waving about water bottles and backpacks that “could have” been left by traffickers – people carry things in backpacks! Alert the media! Hodgson wrote a virulently bitter op-ed after his 287(g) contract was terminated, arguing that ending these contracts is just a way to discredit “the one federal agency that is an obstacle to their self-serving motives.”
The political timing couldn’t be more perfect. Anti-immigration sentiment correlates with natalist sentiments – which we see in recent dramatic anti-abortion measures – as well as nationalist sentiments. It also isn’t a coincidence that the rhetoric of sheriffs in immigration has subsumed the idea of “human trafficking,” which recalls women and girls (and “even” boys, as right-wing media takes pains to point out) become helpless vessels who are transmitted across country boundaries.
I have long been interested in the intersection between natalist sentiment, reproductive rights, and violence against women. In fact, back in my younger days, I wrote my law school thesis on this very problem in the context of international trials that tried to bring closure to the genocidal campaign of violence in Serbia during the 1990s. Before the genocidal campaign of the Serbian government, there was a rise in natalist policies as well as ethno-nationalism. This was both a government and media campaign, including propaganda that the population of Serbs was constantly decreasing as a result of lower birth rates, nicknamed “white death.” These lowered birth rates were blamed on individual women for choosing not to bear children and, as a result, failing to fulfill their patriotic duty.
At the same time, post-socialist Yugoslavia began enacting pro-natalist legislation to limit abortions and reward larger, “traditional” families. Serbia supported 3-child families with benefits, proposed labor laws to lower the age of mandatory retirement for women, and provided paid maternity leave while also adding legislation to “[promote] the right to life of every unborn child.” In the media and pro-life Catholic church, women who elected to have abortions were “traitors” who were “too interested in enjoying themselves and not willing to bear and raise children because it might threaten their comfortable lives.”
An important part of the idea behind women as ethno-nationalist birthing vessels that alarms me greatly is the way in which “liberal” media has begun to carry water for the pro-natalist/ anti-abortion movement. This includes stories like this one and books like this one, which nominally are about families and the problems of family economics – which are legitimate concerns because of the lack of government support in terms of housing, food, and child care – but are also replicating (intentionally or not) the idea of a homogenous and heterosexual family whereby all members are related and of the same ethnicity and race.
For example, note how Elizabeth Bruenig (an avowed pro-life and lefty Catholic) in her article about women’s labor (in which she points out that both sides say they want to support working women and increase government benefits for families) scolds liberal female politicians who argue that child allowances by the government will encourage more women to stay home. Putting aside whether Bruenig miscasts some of these lefty arguments, her point is one of personal choice – women should be able to stay home if they want, work if they want. This seems unassailable from a feminist point of view, and indeed that is how Bruenig makes her point.
But why does her argument rub me the wrong way? I would say it’s because Bruenig fails to put the politics of child care and work into the context of the current political moment, one where the Supreme Court seems poised to overturn Roe v. Wade and where Texas has a 6-week abortion ban (with extremely broad felony charges attacked to anyone who promotes or assists in abortions after 6-weeks). It is one thing to say that women “choose” whether to work or stay home; it’s yet another to make that “choice” a function of reality, in terms of life satisfaction, family structure (Bruenig seems to ignore motherless families), reproductive choice, and, yes, the concern of reiterating an ethno-state where white women are empowered and encouraged to child-rear.
I have even worse things to say about Matthew Yglesias’s book, which wants to temper its pro-natalism tendencies by arguing in favor of more immigration as well. First, he casts reproduction as a weapon in some sort of ethno-nationalist war – have more children so China doesn’t win – which strikes me as the least feminist argument of all time. Second, he claims to be “liberal” while also quoting sources like the Institute of Family Studies, whose avowed mission is to increase two-parent, heterosexual families. Both Yglesias and Bruenig want to talk about children and families as a structure, as sort of population-level abstractions, while conveniently ignoring that children come from, well, a woman’s uterus.
In other words, while I might argue there are legitimate concerns about the lack of government support for children, these arguments tend to root themselves in the very same ethno-nationalist ideas that we have seen cause a great deal of violence and threaten democracy as we know it. In the same way, Yugoslavian politics in the 1990s emphasized “family issues,” talking about the family as a “safe space,” with very little public feminist dissent. (While not my main topic here, I would categorize the anti-trans fervor in the same category –mothers and children have been the public face of anti-trans campaigns and have used similar biological and natalist arguments in favor of essentializing women as reproducers.)
Conveniently, all these arguments are also anti-feminist to the extent they rely, intentionally or not, on women as the carriers of this burden. While liberal media is pretty careful to avoid the point that women are “selfish,” the same idea underlies all pro-natalist complaints since, to my knowledge, there is no other way to have a baby without the involvement of a physical woman with a physically-functioning womb.
I acknowledge that some might argue that my attitude forestalls all discussions about family structure on a government level. And yet, I am not sure that is right. There are so many avenues to pursue child welfare, from better medical care, to supporting parents without putting children in foster care, to changing the family court system and how the government assesses fitness to be a parent. Why not increase payments to non-parents (grandparents, aunts, uncles) who are primary guardians of children? Why not eliminate housing regulations that forbid multi-generational families from living together? Why are women’s choices – whatever that means – some sort of key component to nationalist policy?
Similarly, others might argue I am being too dramatic by comparing American politics today with 1980-90s Serbia. My intent is not to argue we are on the path to genocide, although that’s not out of the question, but rather to say that this nationalism rhetoric is dangerous and should be taken seriously. Liberal media might do well to conder why anti-immigration, pro-family, anti-abortion, anti-trans, anti-vax, anti-government intervention, and anti-democracy legislation and propaganda are all on the rise at the exact same time. Coincidence? I think not.
What’s my point and how does this relate to sheriffs and immigration, you might ask? While I’m still figuring it out, as always, I think that there is something extra-insidious in the rhetoric around immigration, especially moral-panic-style immigration fears that collapse violence against women with nationalist fears of “invading” people. Sheriffs and the far-right have taken up the cause of “human trafficking” as a reason for people to be concerned about immigration, which brings back in the image of immigrants as antithetical to the national “American” family.
Sheriffs, it seems are at an interesting inflection point. Sheriff Jones of Butler County, Ohio, announced, “With the crisis at the border getting worse, it concerns me that the feds will ship detainees to my facility, then release them to the streets of my community under some technicality. It's better to just end this arrangement now, than to let that happen. This discourse around disengaging from ICE is plainly disingenuous and conceals the fact that his jail is too dangerous and was likely to be dropped by the feds. (Under Trump, safety and health regulations for federal detention were relaxed; Biden will/ has restored them, which means some jails will no longer be eligible for federal dollars.)
Sheriff Jones’ position makes some financial sense if you are a sheriff in a county with fewer dollars to spend and you think it’s unlikely that you will be able to approve enough funding for the jail. As Aaron Littman points out in his new law review article, the financial implications of county jails should not be underestimated. (Jones implied that he will simply house people for other agencies to make up the shortfall.)
It might seem odd for sheriffs to flip disengagement from ICE as a good thing — which both Hodgson and Jones have done — but it’s consistent with their anti-government ideals. Even Sheriff Joe Arpaio, anti-immigrant extraordinaire, originally opposed working with ICE because he did not want to be under the thrall of the feds. It’s pretty clear that this is mostly because Biden is president and right-leaning sheriffs are better off fighting against the current administration than anything else.