The latest disturbing development in the conservative attack on the 14th amendment: last week Tennessee state legislator and Republican Curry Todd argued against birthright citizenship on the grounds that it would cause immigrants to “go out there like rats and multiply.”
Todd . . . made the comments at a legislative committee meeting earlier this week after being told that federal law requires the state to extend prenatal care to women regardless of their citizenship status because all children born in the U.S. are citizens.
Rep. Todd is standing by his comments and refuses to apologize for them, but says he used the “wrong terminology” and should have said “anchor babies” instead – a term not quite as fully dehumanizing as “rats,” but dehumanizing nonetheless. Try again, buddy.
Scary part #1: An elected state official feels perfectly comfortable spouting such hateful, nativist, racist rhetoric in public. And he’s totally unrepentant.
Scary part #2: His comments represent the views of a large minority (at least, I hope it’s a minority!) of Americans.
Scary part #3: Like most xenophobic, anti-immigration Americans, Todd seems entirely ignorant that he’s reproducing dangerous tropes and stereotypes about immigrants that have a long, LONG history in this country: The assumption that immigrants, and particularly non-white and/or non-Protestant Christian immigrants are hyperfecund (like animals) and threaten to overrun white Protestant America with their numerous offspring (again, like animals); the implication that immigrants are like vermin, or diseased; the insistence that immigrants pose an imminent threat to the metaphorical or actual health and safety of the country.
These are all very old ideas, and they’re ideas that have serious and potentially very dangerous consequences. It’s a short step from paranoia about “multiplying” immigrant populations to manipulating or coercing sterilizations or the use of birth control (see, for example, the marketing of Norplant as a method of birth control in communities of color, and the higher rates of tubal ligation in black and Hispanic populations). It’s a short step from nebulous fears about public health or national security to forced quarantines, unlawful detention, persecution, and even extermination (it’s not a coincidence that the metaphor of Jews as vermin or pests was commonplace for years before the Holocaust started). Closer to home we can point to the internment of Japanese Americans during WWI and other numerous examples of how nativist rhetoric poses a concrete danger to immigrant populations:
Restrictionists have sought to link certain countries of origin (especially Asian and Latin American countries) to disease outbreaks and crime. They have claimed nonwhite immigrants are a menace to public health. Throughout the course of the bracero program (1942–1964), Mexican workers were periodically sprayed and washed for body lice and other vermin. There was widespread fear that Mexicans carried contagious diseases like tuberculosis. In April and May 1980 more than 125,000 Cubans were boat-lifted to the United States; the boat refugees included six hundred former asylum inmates and twelve hundred former prison inmates or people suspected of serious crimes in Cuba who had been released by Fidel Castro. These boat refugees came to be known as the Marielitos, and they were promptly typecast as a criminal and deviant population that threatened the United States with diseases and illicit behavior. A New York Times headline read, “Retarded People and Criminals” (Ojito). By 1987 thirty-eight hundred Mariel refugees were serving sentences for crimes committed in the United States, and another thirty-eight hundred were subject to indefinite detention after completing sentences or for suspicion of crimes. In January 2005 the U.S. Supreme ruled that this detention was unlawful and that the U.S. government could no longer detain Cuban refugees who had served their time or were simply deemed to have suspicious backgrounds. In another example of this type of racist construct, Haitian immigrants (boat refugees) were detained at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay naval base in the 1990s, presumably because they constituted an HIV/AIDS menace.