Author Archives: Laura Briggs

Dr. Laura Briggs is Professor and Chair of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She writes and teaches about reproductive politics, feminism, race, and the relationships of the U.S. and Latin America.

Central American Child Migrants: Why Are Kids Arriving Unaccompanied? What Should Happen with Them?

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by Liz Oglesby

Here’s why Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson is exactly wrong on the Central American migrant issue.

Two questions are relevant here: why are Central Americans crossing the border, and why are kids coming without adult relatives?

To the first question there are numerous answers, some structural and some immediate. Poverty, inequitable land tenure, lack of opportunity, violence and the local-level political economic effects of free trade are all structural factors that propel Central American migration. US policy in the region has a decades-long legacy of exacerbating these structural inequities , and the current humanitarian crisis on the border is most definitely a kind of “blow-back.”

There are also immediate reasons for the sharp rise in Central American children crossing the border. I agree with Secretary Johnson on the key role of smuggling networks in misinformation campaigns directed at Central Americans, spreading false information about minors being able to secure “permisos” to stay in the United States.

But why are kids making the dangerous trek unaccompanied by their parents or adult relatives? During last week’s House hearings, I heard no effort to analyze that question. Yet based on research I have done, as well as other important research done at the University of Arizona by Murphy Woodhouse, Jeremy Slack, Geoff Boyce, Richard Johnson, and others, here’s why these kids are coming without their families.

The kids are coming unaccompanied by relatives because of the militarization of the US border that has occurred since the mid 1990s and especially since the mid 2000s. The details of this militarization are well known, and the bottom line is that as the trek north has become riskier (walking days through the treacherous desert), it has also become a lot more expensive. It currently costs between $8,000 and $12,000 for one person to make the trip from Guatemala to the US. In the past, there was a lot more circular migration from Mexico and Central America; parents could work in the US and return home, or travel to pick up their kids for the journey north. “Coyotes” were not drug smugglers, but usually just people from the community who knew the routes.

These days, what is the choice for parents who are already in the US? In many cases, the choice is either to arrange for the kids to come north on their own via ever more dangerous networks, or never see them again.

And so, why is Secretary Johnson exactly wrong on this issue?

In last week’s hearings, he stressed that the “key” policy tool would be to ramp up Mexico’s “deterrence” capability vis-à-vis Central American migrants.

First of all, it’s hard to see how the migrant routes could possibly become more militarized, but even if that were to happen, it would only push the Central American children ever more tightly into the clutches of criminal trafficking networks. And it would make it more likely—not less—that children would travel unaccompanied by an adult relative, since the cost to migrate would become even more prohibitive.

Of course, stopping Central Americans before they reach Mexico’s northern border has long been a goal of US policy. But this doesn’t solve the humanitarian crisis; it merely displaces it out of range of US television cameras.

I could write another essay on why Joe Biden’s offer to increase funding to Central America via USAID anti-gang programs is useless to stop out-migration (this is just more of the same top-down development policy, and these funds will go to government agencies and large NGOs and will have little or no effect on the communities of migrants).

Why should US citizens care about this?

Besides the humanitarian debacle playing out on our border, which we had a decisive hand in creating, a significant amount of money is being wasted in this “security theater.” Research shows that punitive measures taken against migrants don’t deter migration, they just increase people’s suffering.

The Central American kids won’t stop coming no matter how many National Guard troops we put on the border or how much we coerce Mexico into persecuting them along the way. They will only stop if conditions change in Central America, and to support that, we should have a much broader discussion of US policy toward the region.

In the meantime, why not treat the Central American migrants the way we treat Cubans? Why not simply let them stay? Given our nefarious history in the region, it is the least we can do.

Liz Oglesby is Associate Professor of Geography and Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She has worked in Central America since the 1980s. She is a former editor of Central America Report (Guatemala City) and co-editor of The Guatemala Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

Baby Veronica, Again: Still a Feminist Issue

What are the conditions under which a biological parent should lose rights to their children, and how much should marriage matter in determining that? Does it make a difference whether the child is eligible for enrollment in Native nation or not? And, finally, should the court consider the best interests of the child in determining placement?

These I think are the significant points of disagreement between me and those who have argued that it is a feminist position to defend Matt and Melanie Capobianco’s right to adopt Veronica. I would argue that the Baby Veronica case is not a “birthmother’s rights” issue, that birth mothers’ preferences should not always be determinative in disputed stranger adoptions.

Several things have happened since I wrote my post that should be updated. First, of course, the Supreme Court found that ICWA did not apply in this case. In my previous post, I made an argument about why I thought that it should. That point is now mooted, as the law is whatever the Supreme Court says it is, unless Congress changes it. The biological father, Dusten Brown’s parental rights were terminated by the finding that ICWA did not apply, and the fact that the would-be adoptive parents live in South Carolina, a state that for purposes of adoption does not recognize men as fathers unless they are married to the mother or meet other stringent criteria (although if an unmarried mother seeks TANF—welfare—in order to keep her child, the state will recognize him as a father, force him to pay child support, and deduct his presumed contribution from her eligibility for benefits. But I digress. The state is not required to treat families trying to keep their children fairly.) I would disagree with those who have suggested that treating fathers as parents was an “unintended” consequence of ICWA, but those who want to know more about the history of ICWA can look to my book, Somebody’s Children, which details both the decade-long fight for its passage and the long history subsequently of it being misunderstood and more often ignored than enforced. Suffice to say that 35 years after ICWA passed, the rate of Native kids being placed in adoptions and foster care is still more than double that of kids from other groups. That should raise political questions about whether the courts should be placing any limitations on the scope of ICWA.

Many legal experts and Native advocacy groups expected that when the Supreme Court remanded the case to South Carolina this summer, there would be a hearing on Veronica’s best interest. The SC court had previously applied a “best interest” standard when it denied the Capobianco’s petition to adopt her and ruled that ICWA applied. There was, however, no new hearing on best interest. Instead, a divided court ruled 3-2 that since Christina Maldonado had relinquished her rights to her daughter, and since Dusten Brown was not legally related to Veronica since he did not materially support her birth mother during pregnancy, there was no impediment to issuing a decree granting an adoption to the Capobiancos.

But whether or not that stands up as a legal argument (and we will see what happens), it makes no sense socially or morally to treat the Capobiancos as having a standing in this case that Brown is not entitled to. Before the Supreme Court case, they were legal strangers to her. Veronica’s biological father has been caring for her for the last two years, and taking her from a biological parent who wants her, who seemingly and presumptively has, as the South Carolina Court predicted when granting him custody two years ago, kept her “safe, loved, and cared for,” in favor of the Capobiancos seems to be only about their wealth and privilege. The court’s failure to consider Brown a parent, to simply act as if he had no standing at all in the debate over whether she should be adopted by a couple in South Carolina, precisely exemplifies why I think this case is alarming, and why ICWA was passed in the first place. It was one thing to make that argument when she was living with the Copobiancos and had never met Dusten Brown. But it seems quite another two years later, when she has been living with him all this time. He is, quite meaningfully, a parent to Veronica.

Supporters of the Capobiancos continue to argue about what happened during Maldonado’s pregnancy, but at this point, that’s a little disingenuous. Maldonado’s lawyer, weirdly, harangued Brown’s supporters after midnight on Facebook a few weeks ago, painting him as your basic deadbeat ex- who abandoned his pregnant girlfriend and turned up again later like a bad penny. Indian Country Today (which has otherwise had really exemplary coverage) described her as a bad mother who had lost her other two kids, someone with significant financial problems who had refused financial help from Brown, gotten a lot of money from the Capobiancos, and bought a fancy new SUV. Yuck. I’m more than willing to stipulate that for neither of them was this their finest hour. Nor is anyone asking whether you or I or anyone has to admire them or like them. The only question is whether they ought to be granted the same wide benefit of the doubt that all parents who do not beat or extensively neglect their children are given.

As an adoptive parent myself, I feel for the Capobiancos, who grieve a child that they raised for two years but where not able to adopt when they took her to court at 2. It happens sometimes, and it’s hard. But as someone, too, who mourned with my daughter her sense of loss over her birth parents, I wonder what they think is going to happen when Veronica turns 12 and Googles herself. Or even 7, much less 18, 21, 35. For most adoptees, especially older ones like my daughter or Veronica, who will be four in September, adoption is about loss as well as gain. To some extent, that’s because of how we in the U.S. structure it: you can have only one set of legal parents. If the adoption goes through, Veronica will get a new birth certificate; it will be as if Dusten Brown had never existed. My daughter was taken from her birth family at 2, and again at 4, following a finding of abuse. Today, at 25, she remembers that vividly, and her sense of abandonment—even though she was literally taken away in the middle of the night and ripped from her mother’s arms—still haunts her, even though we have a close and loving relationship, and, if pressed, she would say that her “real” parents are the ones who raised her. I don’t know what I would’ve said to her in the face of her longing for her birth family if the facts were different—if she had been safe and well-loved, but I took her because I wanted a child to raise as my own. If that were the case, I sincerely hope and believe I would’ve stepped aside. Every adoption begins with a tragedy, a crisis, someone’s grief, including, often, the child’s. Why would we socially engineer that for no reason except that the Capobiancos want to raise her?

In addition to the speculative question of how Veronica will feel as she grows, there is the broader context of adoption, which this case seems to reinforce the worst aspects of. People who lose children to adoption are almost always poor, Black, brown, or Asian (or the teenage daughters, sometimes, of white evangelicals, who have treated adoption sometimes as a position in a culture war, as the Nightlife Christian adoption agency and lawyer Paul Clement seem to have in this case). People who adopt are wealthy, generally from the U.S., Western Europe, Australia, or Israel, and usually but not exclusively white. In short, adoption follows gradients of power, wealth, and privilege. In the 1950s and sixties, those who relinquished children for adoption were generally young, dependent white girls (other groups’ children were generally considered un-adoptable). In the early 1970s, as soon as white girls started to be able to make enough with their own wages to minimally (even miserably) support their children as single parents, they stopped placing their infants for adoption. Since then, the faces of those placing children for adoption has gotten darker and poorer, are more often from the global South, and those adopting have gotten wealthier. As international human rights treaties have demanded more transparency in where those Guatemalan and other overseas children have come from, or given their birth parents more rights to contest those adoptions, the “supply” of these children, too, has begun to dry up (and as political events make adoption an issue). The whole edifice of adoption as a massive, rather than occasional, practice has relied on finding more and more powerless people to provide adoptable babies and children.

It is a mistake, I think, for feminists to look to a dispute between a working-class father in the military and an impoverished and desperate mother and say, let’s take up this woman’s particular cause and call it a women’s rights question. Because overwhelmingly, the people who suffer when it is easy for wealthy strangers to adopt and difficult for birth parents to mount an effective legal challenge are women. In the original fight for ICWA in the sixties and 70s, it was birth mothers who had lost their children who provided the testimony that made Congress initially take notice of the crisis of people taking children from Indian Country. It has been birth mothers—and adoptees—who have campaigned for open records and greater legal protection from would-be adopters. This is not an anti-feminist “father’s rights” case. This is a case about whether poor people of color are going to have meaningful protection of their rights as parents.

Feminists and the Baby Veronica Case

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Dusten Brown, Veronica, and Brown’s wife Robin. Photo by John Nichols

by Laura Briggs (reposted from guest blog for NCROW)

The “Baby Veronica” case (Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl) currently before the Supreme Court is many things—a case that could undermine a great deal of federal Indian law by attacking the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA); a story about the stupid, mean things a couple will do to each other when they break up; and a sad story about a little kid who, at four, spent the first two years of her life with would-be adoptive parents and the next two living with her bio-father, his wife and other children. It’s also a story about the conservative right’s uses of marriage and its adoption crusade. What it’s not is a case that feminists have been on the right side of.

Facts

First, the facts, which have been widely misreported. In December 2008, Dusten Brown and Christina Maldonado were engaged; in January 2009, she became pregnant. She lived in his hometown, Bartlesville, OK, near his parents, but as he was active duty military, he lived four hours away at Fort Sill. On learning of her pregnancy, he began to press her to marry; she refused, and in May, they broke up. In an effort to get her to reconsider, he said, he refused to support her and said he wouldn’t pay child support, either. She told him he would have to relinquish his parental rights to her. Meanwhile, without his knowledge, she contacted the Nightlife Christian Adoption Agency (yes, you have heard of them—George Bush publically thanked them for pioneering “snowflake adoptions” of cryopreserved embryos, which they call “pre-born children”). With Nightlife’s assistance, Maldonado selected a couple in South Carolina to adopt her child, a state (not incidentally) that has laws very unfavorable to birth fathers—in order to have standing in an adoption case, fathers must have lived with the birth mother for at least six months prior to the birth of the child, and to have provided financial support, neither of which Brown had done.

There was, however, a potential complication, as Maldonado told Nightlife: Brown was Cherokee, which might have made the venue for any adoption Cherokee tribal court in Oklahoma, not South Carolina. Nightlife contacted the Cherokee Nation, but the agency misspelled Brown’s name and gave a wrong birth date for him. As a result, the Nation could not verify that Brown was Cherokee or that the baby was eligible for enrollment, and did not block the removal of the case to South Carolina. Baby Veronica was born in September with the would-be adoptive parents—the Capobiancos—present, but Maldonado told the hospital to deny she was there if Brown called. Four months later, less than two weeks before Brown was to be deployed to Iraq, the Capobiancos’ lawyer sent a process server with relinquishment papers. Thinking he was relinquishing to Maldonado during his deployment, Brown signed a form entitled “Acceptance of Service” but immediately asked for the paper back, saying he wanted to talk to an attorney. The process server threatened him with criminal prosecution if he touched the paper. Brown consulted an army attorney, and filed a stay of the adoption in South Carolina, establishing paternity, seeking custody (offering to place the baby with his parents until he returned from Iraq), and promised to support Veronica. The Cherokee Nation also intervened, identifying the father as a registered member and saying that ICWA applied and had not been followed. Adoption proceedings were halted, although the baby stayed with the Capobiancos. When Brown returned from Iraq in 2011, two South Carolina courts found that ICWA applied, that Brown had not consented to the termination of his parental rights and there never should have been an adoption case, and awarded custody of two-year old Veronica to Brown.

At that point, the Capobiancos and Nightlife got considerable attention from the Evangelical Christian right, and “Save Baby Veronica” websites and petitions popped up all over. Enter Paul Clement, patron saint of conservative causes at the Supreme Court–defender of the Defense of Marriage Act, leading the charge against Obama’s expansion of health care coverage, staunch defender of Arizona’s immigration law, and the mouthpiece of the Bush administration in torture cases. Clement also currently represents a non-Indian gaming client who wants to put a casino in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and is arguing that the state law on Indian gaming amounts to an illegal racial set-aside. This may be the real key to the Baby Veronica case—if conservatives are successful in gutting ICWA, much Indian law will also fall. Not for the first time in U.S. history, the successful claim by Native people on a resource—the lucrative gaming industry—is under full-scale legal assault.

 Baby Veronica Case Goes to the Supreme Court

Clement successfully brought the Baby Veronica case to the Supreme Court, making a series of interrelated arguments. First, his brief insists that Brown is not legally or meaningfully a father because he and Maldonado were not married. For me, as a lesbian mother who raised a child in Arizona where I could not adopt her because her other mother and I were not married, this argument terrifies me. Second, he makes an old (and racist) blood quantum argument, saying that the child is “really” Hispanic, because she doesn’t have a sufficient fraction of “Indian blood” to count—a point on which the Cherokee nation begs to differ. Finally, he says, ICWA is a law that gives unfair racial preferences to Native people in adoption and custody cases. In this, he is following Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court Justice he clerked for. Scalia, commenting on Baby Veronica, said that the most wrenching case he ever decided was Holyfield, where he had to “turn [a] child over to the tribal council,” removing it from a “wealthy rancher” in an ICWA case. This is a strange description of Holyfield. What the Court actually did in Holyfield was determine that the jurisdiction for the adoption would be tribal court, much as it might find that one state rather than another was the proper place to hear an adoption or custody case. In Holyfield, the “wealthy rancher’s” family in fact adopted the children (there were twins); the tribal court found it was in the children’s best interest. This is a crucial point: ICWA does not determine who gets a child. It determines jurisdiction–who gets to decide who gets a child.

Jurisdiction matters a lot in adoption. State laws vary widely, and many Sunbelt states (plus Utah), are known as “easy adoption” states where Christian adoption agencies, in particular, often relocate pregnant women because they, and the birth fathers, have few rights there. ICWA is the only federal law that offers birthparents rights in adoption cases, so that enrolled members of Native Nations, at least, have uniform and enforceable rights. The jurisdiction is always tribal court, and the law is consistent.

As I have argued elsewhere, ICWA does not provide special “racial entitlements”; it treats (some) American Indians as having a distinct political status conferred by treaty rights. In fact, in 1974, the Supreme Court ruled on this very point. In Morton v. Mancari, the court held that Native people could be treated differently from non-Native people, not because they belonged to a distinct racial group, but because tribal nations are “quasi-political entities” whose status is determined by federal treaty. Being the parent of a child eligible for tribal enrollment is not a “race.” People otherwise identifiable as Native may have children that are not ICWA-eligible because they belong to a non-recognized or terminated tribe (of which there are about 200 in the United States), because of arcane blood quantum requirements, or because they are indigenous but from Latin America, Canada, or Hawaii. Two, all ICWA does is give birth parents rights that many think they should have regardless, and often do. If the Baby Veronica case had been in Massachusetts, for example, Dusten Brown would be treated as a legal parent, and his daughter could not be adopted unless he either relinquished his parental rights or was shown to be unfit—the same standard as ICWA.

“Where is the outrage from women’s groups over this issue?”

“Where is the outrage from women’s groups over this issue?” asks a recent blog post on the Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare’s website, wondering why feminists are not angry about an unmarried father demanding a say in the placement of a child for adoption. I’d ask the same question, but with opposite intent. So far, the only feminist voices in this debate have been Joan Heifetz Hollinger and Elizabeth Bartholet, who support Paul Clement and Nightlife Christian Adoption Agency in their brief in the case, which argues for a standard some states have invented, that ICWA should only apply when it disrupts an “existing Indian family,” a standard that has been interpreted very narrowly—a married heterosexual couple living on a reservation. Why feminists would think that is a good idea, when 48% of children are born to single mothers, is beyond me.

Why Feminists Should Care

Here’s why feminists should care about this: it’s a racist case designed to gut federal Indian law. It’s a “states rights” case, which should haunt anyone who thinks slavery was a bad thing. It involves a high-profile cast of right-wing actors, from an evangelical Christian adoption agency to lawyer Paul Clement. Making adoption easy and giving birth parents and unwed parents few rights has been a conservative anti-abortion agenda for a long time. It’s time feminists noticed, and opposed it. When unmarried fathers are not really parents, unmarried mothers are vulnerable too, as when Newt Gingrich threatened to take the children of welfare mothers and put them in orphanages. If this case is successful, it would make it much easier for poor people to lose children, including against their will, which mostly affects mothers.

Correction August 15: Due to a writing mistake, the paragraph that begins “There was however a potential…” mistakenly said that Veronica stayed with the Maldonados. She didn’t. She stayed with the Capobiancos. Much has happened in this case since I blogged about it last May. Keep up with it at http://Indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/ and http://splitfeathers.blogspot.com/, among other.

Russia’s Adoption Ban

Russian baby

The Russian adoption ban and the US Magnitsky Act offer all the absurdity of the Cold War, with less geopolitically at stake. Both sides are claiming the other is cruel to children, and neither is making much sense. There are real issues to talk about related to the care of children, but the conversation in the blogosphere and the press on both the Russian and U.S. sides relies on caricatures of each other, children, and adoption.

In early December, Congress passed and Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, which was aimed at Russian officials responsible for the death in prison of Sergei Magnitsky. a lawyer who had supposedly uncovered a tax fraud scheme by Russian officials against Hermitage Capital Management, a U.K.-based financial company that lobbied heavily for the Act. It also imposed visa and financial sanctions against all Russian officials responsible for “gross violations of human rights.” It’s unclear at best what this means, but it does seem to violate US and international law—Russian officials apparently could have assets frozen and even be incarcerated if they set foot on US soil, based simply on allegations by U.S. NGOs.

Russia responded by denouncing the hypocrisy of US complaints about Russian human rights standards as long as Guantanamo’s prison was open, and its parliament passed the Dima Yakovlev Act, which banned U.S. NGOs from operating in Russia, including those involved with adoptions. Dima Yakovlev was an adopted Russian toddler who died when his new father forgot to drop him off at daycare, and left him strapped into a hot car in July, 2008 for nine hours in a Washington, D.C. area parking lot. The case made headlines in Russia when the father was acquitted on manslaughter charges, joining a steady stream of other terrible cases reported regularly in the Russian press of adoptees beaten, neglected, and killed by their U.S. parents, time and time again igniting calls for an international adoption ban. While the actions of a mother in Tennessee, who put her seven-year old adopted son from Russia on a plane back to that country in 2010 made headlines in the U.S., for Russians it was just another in a long series, a steady drumbeat of distressing stories about serious abuse of Russian adoptees. While there is little doubt that it was the Magnitsky Act that precipitated the ban on U.S. adoptions from Russia, it wouldn’t have been possible to mobilize so quickly to stop them if there were not already a great deal of pre-existing political sentiment in this direction.

The whole thing seems like nothing so much as the Nixon-Krushchev kitchen debate, the 1959 exchange between the two leaders about a washing machine in a model house they were touring with press in tow. Krushchev accused the U.S. of “capitalist attitudes” that exploited and oppressed women in the home. Nixon touted the U.S. standard of living, and said that while misogynist attitudes were universal, the purpose of things like washing machines was to make things easier for “our housewives.”

The Magnitsky-Yakovlev exchange mirrors this conversation in all its foolishness. The trouble with the U.S. position is that it is entirely too sentimental about how great the nuclear family is for children, while the Russian side is too cynical. For one thing, the U.S. press keeps talking about Russian “orphans.” But almost none of the children living in large Russian institutions—about 120,000, according to most estimates—is actually an orphan. They are, like the 400,000 children in the U.S. child welfare system, victims of variously bad circumstances, from parental homelessness to alcoholism or mental illness to abuse. Some have physical or emotional disabilities that make it very difficulty for them to live in a family. Certainly the Russian child welfare system has few things to recommend it, being among other things severely underfunded. (One possibly productive side-effect of all of this is the promise of more funding flowing to Russian child-welfare institutions.)

On the U.S. side, after our own experiments with large-scale institutions for children through the 1960s, we have swung to a new anti-institutional extreme that is informing our desire to “rescue” Russian “orphans.” We imagine that virtually all children—no matter what their history, their emotional or physical state, or the likelihood that their parents might return for them or at least visit—would be better off in a nuclear family. This is sentimental and naïve. While most adoptions of children from Russian institutions go well, post-institutional children or those dealing with the aftermath of abuse, whether from U.S. foster care, Russian orphanages, or any number of other places sometimes have extremely challenging behaviors, outside the box of normal childhood challenges. Some are frighteningly violent, which accounts for some (although by no means all) of the reports of U.S. parents responding with terrible violence of their own to Russian adoptees. The Tennessee single mother who returned her son to Russia had told the local sheriff in her town that the seven year-old had made credible threats that he would burn the house down while she and her other children slept. She got no help. As the viral circulation of the blog post known as “I am Adam Lanza’s mother” made clear, we have few supports and essentially no idea what to do when families say they are afraid of their children’s violence. This, alongside a rejection of the therapeutic culture that seems to have little to offer either parents or children in these situations, provokes a certain acquiescence and even support for the kind of “spare the rod, spoil the child” parenting that can lead to horrific abuse.

The Russians, like Krushchev in 1959, imagine our families as places that exploit the weak and vulnerable—children, this time.

There is nothing good about the Magnitsky-Yakovlev exchange, nor what it produces for institutionalized Russian children or adoptees in the U.S. But wouldn’t it be interesting if we could use it to talk about real issues facing children, parents, and states in the U.S., Russia, and across the globe?

Missing Mila

One of the most remarkable books I’ve read this year is Missing Mila, Finding Family by Margaret Ward, which leaves me with a strong sense that the adoption debate could be—should be—different. It is also a profoundly particular—and hence human—story about how two families, one Salvadoran, one  in the U.S., work through their understanding of a wrenching series of events, including death, adoption, and the loss of a child, and somehow come out the other side with an extraordinary measure of grace.

The world is full of adoption narratives. They tend to be sentimental, to dwell on falling in love with a to-be-adopted child, to either romanticize the birthmother’s relinquishment or ignore her altogether, and to emphasize the as-if-born-to quality of the newly created adopted family, although recently, with a proud acknowledgement, too, of its (slight) difference. Missing Mila doesn’t do any of these things. Mila is the birth mother of the child Ward adopts, and the “family” they find is the gradual bringing together of all Mila’s children, from Salvador, Costa Rica, and Massachusetts, their birth father, grandmother, and all the people who raise them into one remarkable group who genuinely care for one another and look after each other.

Ward’s story of how she and husband Tom first came to learn about the child they called Nelson, then spend several weeks in Honduras as guests of Diana Negroponte (wife of US ambassador John Negroponte), is peculiarly flat and factual, preoccupied with what they knew and when, particularly about John Negroponte’s awareness of—and participation in–Honduras’s role in the wars in Salvador and Nicaragua. Peculiar, that is, until Ward tells us later that the first people she wrote that account for were his Salvadoran family, whose understanding at that point was only that there was a baby, Roberto (Nelson), who had disappeared when his mother, an FMLN militant, had disappeared and had probably been killed. It’s hard to write about joy and tragedy in the same lines, and it suggests a great deal about the affective work of the sentimental in covering over violence (as feminist scholars have long argued) that it can have no place here.

Instead, what takes the place of the emotional crescendo of that encounter is another, in 1997, when Nelson was 16 and his U.S. family flew to Costa Rica to meet his relatives. It is a wrenching, tearful meeting, and Nelson (and ultimately his adoptive brother, Derek as well), form particularly strong bonds with Roberto/Nelson’s bio-grandmother and father, but also “their” siblings, two sisters and a brother. The Ward’s gradual process of coming to understand how Nelson had come to be available for adoption is wrenching—that his mother had been shot by Honduran security forces, that he had a grandmother who had never stopped looking for him and a father, too. Understandably, they are terrified that they will lose him, that this is a challenge to the legality of the adoption in Honduras (it is), and perhaps also to their family and living arrangement, despite the gentle assurances to the contrary by his bio-family, whose very first letters, sent into the void in hopes of locating their Roberto, assure them all that they understand that Margaret and Tom are Nelson’s “real” parents.

The rest of the book weaves together the voices of virtually everyone involved, as Margaret Ward first sought to build a record for Nelson, but ultimately with an awareness that she would write this book. Over the course of more than a decade, the children grew, completed higher education, helped each other in business, and wrote a blog together. Margaret spent months in archives, collected oral history from family and friends, and tried to “find” Mila, in a quest that perhaps became more important to her than to the children. They celebrated holidays, birthdays, the anniversary of Mila’s death, shared vacations. In short, remarkably, they all became a family.

A final chapter on the disappeared children of Salvador tries, and to a considerable extent succeeds, in giving us a history of human rights efforts to find and demand justice for the children disappeared during the war, including prominently the work of La Asociación pro Búsqueda de Niñas y Niños Desaparecidos. This is a real service, because that group’s careful work in documenting the fates of children in the post-war period, and their meticulous work in helping communities—and families on both sides of the adopter/lost child divide—become reconciled in the aftermath of the conflict has been little documented by historians and scholars. We have a great deal from and about Argentina’s Abuelas de Plaza de Maya, but aside from Pro Búsqueda’s own books, in Spanish, there is nothing about the comparable (and almost certainly much larger) effort in Salvador.

The greatest contribution of this book, though, aside from the fact that the Ward’s and Escobar/Coto’s families’ stories are compelling in their own right, is the telling of an ultimately courageous narrative about what is possible in the aftermath of atrocious human rights violations in Central America. Not just gangs of torturers, mafias of demobilized militaries, the victories of neoliberalism, and mass migration, but rich, complex lives marked by possibility and—if one can say it without being trite—healing.

The other thing it does is make us aware of how incredibly, depressingly limited the conversation about adoption usually is. Families in the U.S. regularly confess in online adoption forums that they adopt from overseas to avoid the “problem” of birth families. In fact, much of the policy discussion of adoption continues to insist that the whole subject is about “orphans,” as if by pretending that adoptable children have no parents the parents can be made to not exist. What if, instead, we imagined that it really is possible—not always but sometimes—to have rich, meaningful, and sustaining relationships between adoptive families and birth families?

Class binders and illegals

Amidst all the hilarity about binders on Facebook and Tumblr, which I’ve enjoyed as much as anyone, Tuesday night’s debate was actually fascinating for what it told us about what could–and couldn’t–be said about women’s rights, race, and most of all, class.

The question about women’s unequal pay opened up a robust national space to talk about feminism in a way that was not reduceable to abortion rights for the first time since, I don’t know, about 1980. The targeted polling that has told both Romney and Obama that they need to win women’s votes has mapped onto them at least talking about feminist agendas, but they are talking about very different ones.

Romney, aside from being English-language challenged and honesty-impaired (he didn’t solicit the binder, it was pressed upon him and he made a campaign promise to use it), laid out the executive-class agenda for feminism: flexible work schedules for mothers (though apparently not fathers) and affirmative action hiring strategies, where if the applicant pool doesn’t reflect the demographics of who’s out there, you affirmatively recruitment women (and people of color, although Romney didn’t say that). The next day, his campaign released an ad saying he supported abortion rights in cases of rape and incest and did not oppose contraception “at all,” although Planned Parenthood promptly issued a rejoinder pointing out that he had threatened to outlaw abortion entirely and supported the Blunt amendment, which would limit insurance coverage of contraception.

Obama, who referred to Romney’s threat to “get rid of” Planned Parenthood at least four times, laid out a broader, more middle-class agenda, claiming a series of victories on feminist issues: access to the courts for women with equal-pay claims under the Lilly Ledbetter Act, child-care tax credits, insurance coverage for birth control, and support for legal abortion.

Lest we might think that Romney just forgot to mention his support for women who are not well-off, he clarified his views on working-class women a few moments later, when he explained why our country is riven with gun violence and there is nothing that can or should be done about it at the federal level: the problem is single mothers (he said, “and Dads,” but that fooled no one. Mothers are 85% of the single parents out there, but that number is much higher if you exclude divorced parents. Mitt quickly clarified that he meant out-of-wedlock births, which is code for an old conversation in this country: the supposedly loose morals of Black women.) So it turns out that gun violence is the fault of Black mothers. Surprise, surprise.

Interestingly, Romney also made the exact same kind of class argument about immigration. When asked about Dream Act eligible kids, he said no, he wouldn’t support a pathway to citizenship for them. Instead, he made a distinction between “illegals” and the good immigrants whom he would like to invite into the country–foreign nationals with a college degree. Never mind his claim that “it would definitely help to be Latino” in this campaign, the charge that he went on Univision in brown-face, or his confusion about whether Mexican is a nationality and race (as the child of Mexican-born parents, Romney is eligible for Mexican citizenship). Romney is not polling well with Latino voters; in recent Pew poll, 61% saw Democrats as more sympathetic to their issues, while only 10% said Republicans were. This may account in part for the fact that one poll found Obama 2 percentage points ahead of Romney in Arizona.

This is actually a little surprising, given the evidence from California’s Proposition 187 campaign (which was the opening salvo in the war to deny public benefits, like access to schools and hospitals, to those without papers) that a distressing number of U.S.-born Latinos are willing to support measures that punish undocumented immigrants. In other words, his class agenda for immigration ought to poll at least middling among US Latinos. However, Romney’s claim Tuesday night that he did not support Arizona’s SB 1070–which is a little fishy; a truer statement would be that he has neither supported nor condemned it, trying to win the white racist vote while not quite supporting the full measure of their craziness–may give a truer picture of why his support among Latinos is so anemic. US Latinos hate SB 1070 because it targets them–it invites racist cops to harass anyone who looks like they might be undocumented if they have been stopped for another reason. The thing is, anyone who has lived in Arizona is familiar with law enforcement’s willingness to stop people for the crime of driving while brown. The stop doesn’t have to result in a charge, or the charge doesn’t have to hold up in court, especially not if your real goal is to check someone’s immigration status. And of course, immigration status is not a precise thing, nor something that can reliably be proven, especially at a traffic stop–my suburban WASP mother has a defective birth certificate that kept her from flying for all of 2001; the Violence Against Women Act (VOWA) creates a class of people who may be temporarily deportable but ultimately eligible for a green card; and it is well-known that ICE accidentally deports thousands of US citizens every year. Unless Romney is willing to denounce it, he’s toast with Latino voters.

Meanwhile, because it was a question about Dream Act kids, Obama got a pass on that question, and didn’t have to answer the question of why his administration deported a record number of people in 2011. Or rather, he addressed that issue in a way that spoke to middle and working-class Latinos–by claiming he was deporting the gang-bangers whose activities affect working-class communities more than anyone else. What he didn’t acknowledge was that many of the “crimes” for which people were being deported were invented by the Bush administration: using false IDs.

While Romney’s closing statement renounced his 47% claims, his class agenda just didn’t change in the debate. It just got more subtle.

Against Discouragement: Arizona and Immigration

Sign in an Arizona storefront window

Many inside and outside Arizona, including me, were hoping that the US Supreme Court would overturn SB 1070 this week, the Arizona measure dubbed the “show me your papers” law. Instead, it upheld the two centerpieces of the law: that local law enforcement officials be allowed to request documentation of legal status from people it arrested, and, without an arrest, to ask for proof of status from those police had probable cause to believe had committed a crime. The court essentially said it couldn’t decide if allowing police to harass those who looked undocumented meant allowing a policy of racial profiling unless the measure went into effect and we saw what happened, a position that sounds absurd to most people I know.

The ruling means Arizonans–and immigration activists elsewhere–are not going to get help from the Supreme Court or the federal government. But maybe there is a silver lining in all this. Perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court has simply given us some clarity about the fact that it can’t and never could have fixed what went wrong in Arizona.

Some history might help. Think back to the beginning of George W. Bush’s first term. He, the former Texas governor, had announced his support for immigration reform and the Republic convention that made him a presidential candidate had prominently featured his brown nephews and nieces. The white racist wing of the Republican party was definitely on the outside looking for a way back in to national politics. California governor Pete Wilson had lost the Republican presidential primary in 1996, many said because of his support for the controversial anti-immigrant ballot measure in his home state, Proposition 187. Nativist Pat Buchanan’s quest for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 had ended, delightfully enough, after he was booed in Tucson, Arizona, when he appeared in the Rodeo Parade–a local institution that his advisors apparently failed to note was also known as the Fiesta de los Vaqueros. That was Arizona then–a funky libertarian place, where ballot measures to ban or limit abortion failed consistently, and in 2006 was the first state to vote against a ballot measure banning same-sex marriage. Tucson’s population was and is more Latino and Native than it is Anglo; for most of the first decade after 2000, it had a Democratic governor.

After the 2001 attacks by al Qaeda operatives, though, racist groups from around the country began funneling money into Arizona, using the whole state as a kind of focus group for anti-immigrant politics. Some who had been active in California’s Prop 187 campaign bought land along the border, and in 2005, a national campaign to put armed, militia-style anti-immigrant vigilantes along Arizona’s border hired a big PR firm and became known as the “Minutemen.” The group prominently featured neo-Nazis, Vietnam-era Special Forces veterans, and former Contra-era mercenaries trained by the US military. If the goal was “defending the border,” as they claimed, the operation was a failure. The border is a big place, and their presence was insignificant by comparison. If the goal was building an anti-immigrant presence in Arizona and in the national news, it was a coup.

I start with all this to remind us how anti-immigrant politics were built: slowly and painstakingly, through organizing and money. It’s not difficult for a national group to overwhelm politics as usual in Arizona, an impoverished state with 6.5 million people, a very uneven educational system, and a thin civic culture.

While the Supreme Court’s failure to overturn SB 1070 is a disappointing outcome, I suspect that help from the federal government doesn’t mean much in this context, and false hope may be worse than no hope. I’ve been getting increasingly frustrated with the liberal discourse on this subject, which is basically derived from the Civil Rights movement: Mississippi c. 1964. It has it that Arizona is an exceptionally racist state, and the rednecks there need to be stopped by the federal government from waging war on Latin Americans and Latinos within their borders. In this account, SB 1070 is a radical break with the past. Arizona law enforcement is too crazy and stupid to enforce immigration laws, and it is better left to the federal government and ICE, who are more restrained and law-abiding.

While Sheriff Joe Arpaio and plenty of other Arizona elected officials and activists give plenty of warrant for the “crazy and stupid” view, I want to suggest that this account is more wrong than right. First, we need to recognize that building anti-immigrant activism was a well-funded national project. It certainly found fertile ground in Arizona, where it resonated with fears about a crumbling health infrastructure in a state where demographics are skewed elderly, and a weak state budget in an economy hit early and hard by the recession–a state that had relied on (now-slashed) federal government spending, a private sector that was basically (now-shuttered) branch offices of California industry, and now utterly defunct real estate growth. Does Arizona have sufficient jobs or benefits for its population? Absolutely not. Is this the fault of immigrants? Compared to what–state tax cuts in boom times? Hover-esque policies in state government that have left the economy circling the drain? Of course not. But since (liberals please note) Bill Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper shut down border crossing in California and Texas while deliberately leaving it open across Arizona’s desert, Arizona residents are not crazy for feeling besieged and like resources for often sick and injured crossers are overtaxed. Thousands of people crossing border ranches every night has a devastating effect on local ecosystems, and the Tribal Council at the Tohono O’odham reservation near the border–an area the size of Rhode Island–has complained that the drug smugglers in the mix of people crossing the desert have made their community frighteningly unsafe. While I’m not interested in defending anti-immigrant forces at all, I do want to insist that there are real problems that keep generating  anti-immigrant sentiment–and hence, a real political debate to be had about how to solve them, a conversational space that gets shut down by labeling people as rednecks and racists.

Second, I am neither convinced that SB 1070 is a break with the past nor that federal ICE enforcement is so much better. Two stories.

On August 19, 2009–before SB 1070–a friend of mine, let’s call her Mercedes, was pulled over for running a yellow light by the Tucson Police Department, just a few months after she had gotten stopped for having window tinting that police said was too dark. She was, basically, stopped for the crime known locally as driving while brown. She gave them her license and registration. They asked her to prove that the two-year old in the car seat in back, let’s call her Stephanie, was hers. She produced her birth certificate, which said she was born in Tucson. The police asked Mercedes to prove she was in the US legally. Mercedes produced her border-crossing card, which allowed her to visit freely but not live in the US. The police said that Stephanie’s birth certificate proved that Mercedes was living in the US. They detained her, called ICE, and transferred her a few hours later to ICE.

ICE took her to a detention facility 75 miles away, manhandled her, and separated her from the baby. They refused to tell her where the baby was or allow her to call a friend to take her. In keeping with policies ostensibly aimed at identifying immigration traffickers and rings, Obama’s ICE grilled her: who was she working for, what relatives did she have in the US, where was she living? Mercedes refused to give up her friends and relatives, so ICE officials threatened to put Stephanie in foster care. This went on for four days, while friends and the immigration lawyer who had been trying to regularize her status could get no word of her. Finally, they dropped her and Stephanie across the border at 3 am with no money, no phone, without having eaten all day. A fellow deportee loaned her her phone, and a family member drove down with clothes, money, and food. A few days later, her husband and two older children joined her, and they went back to the small town just south of the border they had left. They joined the ranks of the very poor again.

Two things are worth noting about this story. First, the claim that local law enforcement wasn’t checking papers before is unsupportable, and the argument that police can only inquire into someone’s status if they are arrested for another crime is very weak stuff indeed. Anyone can be arrested for something if you try hard enough. If the goal is really just to check papers, the charge doesn’t have to be able to stand up in court. Second, there is nothing gentle or civilized about what happens after you get picked up by the feds.

Another: in August 2004, my 16-year old Mexican-American child was pulled off a bus she was taking from Tucson to Phoenix by ICE, questioned, and asked to prove her status. They finally accepted her school ID, since she couldn’t produce a birth certificate, but the whole thing left me with nightmares about her getting dropped on the streets of a border town on the Mexican side. ICE doesn’t need to have a hearing or even let people suspected of immigration violations contact family members or a lawyer before deporting them. They can simply disappear people.

So U.S. Latinos, even children, were getting harassed and made to produce papers in Arizona long before SB 1070. I’m not sure it matters so desperately which uniform the officials demanding papers are wearing, nor am I convinced that how you will fare if you are at the wrong end of that transaction will be predictably better or worse if it’s police or ICE.

What I do know is this: the Obama administration has deported about 1.7 million immigrants, more than any other president in history. Carving out an exception for 1 million Dream Act kids who are in college or the military and are “American in their hearts,” may well solidify the administration’s authority and legitimacy at home and abroad as it continues its unprecedented removal campaign (as Elliot Young argues in his smart piece on History News Network). Furthermore, if Arpiao was out of control, harassing and terrifying immigrants–and I think he was–he did it with the Obama administration’s blessing. Arpaio and company were deputized as federal immigration enforcers by the federal government under a 287(g) arrangement that allowed the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office to arrest and detain people on immigration violations, an arrangement re-certified by the Obama administration until it pulled it this week. So we can’t just let go and let Obama, or the Supreme Court, and trust that all the terror and bile in play about immigration will get better.

The fight to make the U.S.–including Arizona–a just and hospitable place for immigrants and all brown people can’t be won or lost in a case like Arizona v. United States. In fact, it will be won the same way anti-immigrant forces created the present climate–by organizing, talking to people, going to meetings and making arguments, making the case in the media, in religious groups, in every kind of virtual and face-to-face social network, large and small. We live in a country that has been fundamentally transformed by the Black freedom movement, by feminism, and gay liberation activism, which should surely give us hope that organizing by committed people can change it again. Groups in Arizona like Humane Borders, Derechos Humanos, Borderlinks, the Casa Maria Catholic Worker Community, No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, Samaritans/Samaritanos, a really stunning number of Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, every middle-schooler, high school, or college student who ever walked out in support of immigrant rights or against SB 1070, the teachers and professors that demand people remember that Arizona was once Mexico and the US has not always called immigrants “illegal” or “aliens,” the lawyers who try to regularize people’s status, those who plant and grow crops to increase food security for undocumented people…all these and many more are who can put a stop harassment by law enforcement and terror, disappearances, and deportation. And will.

Mommy wars and the New York Times

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Dennis Mojado photo, http://photography.mojado.com

What is it about the New York Times and feminism? I know this is a stupid question; other people routinely point out that the Times is anti-feminst. But for some reason, I keep being shocked.

Lots of press outlets have been selling the “Mommy Wars,” featuring career women (and feminists) vs. stay-at-home mothers. Most recently up: Hilary Rosen, who was jumped by the Romney people for saying that since Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life” she shouldn’t be Mitt’s advisor on women’s economic issues. See? Those career women/feminists don’t think mothering is work. Radio host Joe Scarborough explained the gaping chasm between Democrats/feminists and Republicans/mothers this way, “It’s amazing,” he said, “the divide between professional women, on one side, unmarried women or married women without children — predominantly Democratic. The other side of the divide? Married women with children who stay at home — predominantly Republican.” Rosen and Romney, he continued, represent this very divide. The problem–both for Scarborough’s argument and for Democrats–is that Hilary Rosen is a mother. A lesbian mother of two biracial children. Huge surprise: Obama denounced her comments and said she should apologize.

More recently, the Times and its bretheren have been getting wound up again about the English translation of Elizabeth Badinter’s The Conflict, which, as we know, argues for a minimalist approach to mothering as a solution to the conflict for women between paid work (and sexy and/or public persona) and parenthood. Last month, this got neatly boiled down in the Times “Room for Debate” blog page to the basic conflict of “motherhood vs. feminism.”

Really, with that kind of press, it’s no wonder so many people think feminist is a dirty word. The only other folks I can think of who are routinely characterized as being “against” children and motherhood are pedophiles and, less often now, queer folk.

A couple of weeks ago, I was happy to see what should have been a bit of a corrective: significant articles about the work of two feminist stalwarts in the paper of record for their work on childbirth and the gendered and classed labor of parenting. Except both pieces went on to ask whether these women hated feminism, since feminists are, after all, against motherhood. Seriously?

One was called, you can’t have guessed it: Mommy Wars: The Prequel. It’s a largely sympathetic piece about Ina May Gaskin and the “Farm,” where Gaskin, a lay midwife, delivers babies “naturally.” Gaskin, like the Our Bodies, Ourselves collective and feminist anthropologist Robbie Davis Floyd, is a critic of the routine medicalization of childbirth. She argues for low-intervention, gentle and even “spiritual” and (potentially) orgasmic birthing. The Times spent two paragraphs contrasting Gaskin’s work with feminism–Shulamith Firestone’s technocratic fantasies, Simone de Beauvoir’s unease about pregnancy, and Gaskin’s own story about being booed by feminists at Yale. Gaskin has told that story elsewhere, but described the reaction as “not feminism,” and talked about how powerful the slogan “Sisterhood is powerful” was in her own life as a young mother. Perhaps it’s true, as the Times and her own Birth Matters: A Midwife’s Manifesta suggest, that Gaskin has felt alienated by feminists and feminism, but she also is clearly well aware that feminists like Barbara Katz Rothman and Genea Corea are very much on the same page as she is, as she cites them in another interview. Above all, she seems to be arguing for a change in feminism, or, to put it in my own terms, to be characterizing a split in feminism. Furthermore, when Gaskin gets criticized–as in this blog post by an OB who argues that home birth has an unacceptably high rate of neo-natal death–it’s as a “feminist anti-rationalist.” (The question of whether rates of birth accidents are too high in home births is one feminists debate, too, by the way.)

The second was a review of Arlie Hochschild’s new book, The Outsourced Self. In it, Hochschild talks to the elder-care specialists, wedding planners, childcare providers, and commercial surrogate mothers who, she argues, have taken over our emotional and caring labor. If Gaskin’s relationship to feminism is complicated but complimentary, Hochschild’s is absolutely clear: she’s been one of the faces of feminist sociology, and in fact, has been one of only a handful of feminist academics who has been widely read outside of academe. Her books include an edited collection with Barbara Ehrenreich, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home, and The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work. Hochschild has been one of our most reliable chroniclers of how families and households have coped with what’s happened to “women’s work” as declining real wages have pushed virtually all adults–notably white middle-class mothers who previously could evade it–into the paid labor force, while the U.S. American workplace has changed almost not at all. She has asked whether men do housework and childcare (less than you might hope), and then how that labor has been outsourced and globalized.

How does the Times reviewer, Judith Shulevitz, turn H0chschild into a critic of feminism? Here’s the quote, at length:

“So does Hochschild deplore feminism? No. But she does think it has been “abducted,” as she has put it in an essay published elsewhere, by the logic and demands of the marketplace — what she provocatively calls “the religion of capitalism.” Feminism has coincided with a drastic lengthening of work hours and a steep decline in job security, and in America those stressors have not been alleviated by social supports like paid family leave and universal child care, at least not in comparison with most other Western nations. As a result, too many bonds of family and community are left untied by anxious, overworked couples, too many familial functions have to be subcontracted, and too many children perceive themselves as burdens. (One of Hochschild’s finest essays, also published elsewhere, is called “Children as Eavesdroppers”; it describes how children listen closely to their parents’ haggling over child care, and conclude that they are unwanted.) Feminists once dreamed that the work of mothering would be properly valued, maybe even reimbursed, once some portion of it had been redistributed to fathers. Instead, a lot of it is being handed off to strangers — although, to be fair, American men do more than they used to.”

Somehow, its not that the logic of capitalism has bulldozed the feminist desire for meaningful work that included but exceeded child rearing, but that feminism itself has become complicit in the outsourcing of emotional labor.

To say I’m skeptical barely scrapes the surface. In fifteen years as a Women’s Studies professor (and an educational career that got me all the way to 24th grade), I’ve never once read a feminist meditation on how great the logic of the market is, or how the US workplace and social policies are contributing to the building of a feminist utopia. On the contrary, Hochschild’s critique puts her in the mainstream of feminist accounts of what’s happening to the relationship between intimate labor and paid labor.

The thing that makes this all so annoying is not just the routinized feminist-bashing. It’s that feminism is one of the intellectual and political spaces where people have thought long and hard about childbirth, parenting, and intimate labor. Articles like these, in the Times and elsewhere, borrow many feminist insights and hard-won critiques while dissing the movement that brought them to the fore. And if we want to forge an alternative to the anodyne “work-life balance” that corporate HR offices offer us, that implies its our fault if we can’t make it all “balance,” or corporate medicine’s risk-management approach to childbirth, with its 33% C-section rate, we need feminism.

Guatemalans’ Missing children

Last week, the U.S. State Department announced that it would not return a girl adopted from Guatemala in 2008, even though courts there found that she had been kidnapped. The child’s mother, working with Fundación Sobreviventes (a feminist group that works on femicide, child sexual abuse, and children lost to adoptions) has said that she will travel to Missouri to ask a court there to return custody of her daughter to her. The child’s adoptive parents, Timothy and Jennifer Monahan, have consistently said that they have a complete and valid adoption, and, after an appearance on the CBS Early Show in 2010, have hired a publicity firm and refused to speak to anyone about the case.

According to Erin Siegel, a journalist who has done some of the best  U.S.-based reporting on adoption from Guatemala, the child, Anyelí Hernández Rodríguez, was 2 years old when disappeared from the patio of the family’s home in San Miguel Petapa, a small community outside Guatemala City, while her mother was bringing in groceries. Although the family searched for her–putting up posters, contacting the police, and attempting to visit orphanages, Anyelí was offered for adoption to the Monahans in 2007. A DNA test found that the supposed birth mother who was relinquishing Anyelí was fraudulent. According to emails published by Siegel, Sue Hedberg, the director of the Christian adoption agency, Celebrate Children International, told Jennifer Monahan that although increased scrutiny had made it much more difficult for the company involved, LabCorp, to “bury” the DNA test, Monahan might be offered the child again under a different name. Subsequently, Hedberg made “Karen Abigail” available to the Monahans for adoption, a child of the same age who was allegedly abandoned. When Anyelí’s birthparents got access to adoption records in Guatemala with the help of Sobreviventes, they identified “Karen Abigail” as their daughter from the photo on the birth certificate. By then, however, she had already left the country with the Monahans, on her way to Liberty, Mo., with the help of Susana Luarca a Guatemalan lawyer notorious in human rights circles, and identified in the US press as a participant in abusive adoption practices at least six years earlier.

I’m always afraid people think I’m making stuff up when I write about adoption from Guatemala, but this case has published documents and multiple convictions of people involved. It’s also a lot like other cases I wrote about in Somebody’s Children.

Anyeli’s mother, Loyda Rodríguez, participated in the 2008 Sobreviventes hunger strike that finally led to the halting of most adoptions from Guatemala to the US (as most other nations had long since stopped them). As she continued to pursue the case, through activism and the courts, Rodríguez also faced stepped up harassment: her sister was abducted (although she escaped), and she was followed by strange cars. Finally, Rodríguez took her three children and fled the Guatemala City area in terror.

The manifest unhelpfulness of the U.S. State Department, the Guatemalan police and government agencies that Rodríguez truned to for help, and the fact that she has been harassed and terrorized should not surprise us. Adoption from Guatemala to the United States  became a huge money-making enterprise carried out by courts, lawyers, and government agencies together with criminal mafias in the 90s and first decade after 2000. Before that, disappearing children was a practice carried out by militaries and paramilitaries to terrorize their supposed enemies on the political Left. As the human rights groups Todos por el Reencuentro has documented, thousands of children were disappeared during the civil war in Guatemala, beginning with a vengeance in the 1980s. This story, along with the attempted genocide of indigenous people there, has been thoroughly ignored in the United States. Most of these children were adopted within Guatemala, but some made their way into adoption to the US, Canada, and Western Europe. By 1994, when the Peace Accords were signed, adoption had become a very lucrative enterprise. As the war to defeat Communism in Guatemala was ending, members of the military and others began engaging in a particularly spectacular form of neoliberal capitalism: the disappearance and sale of children for up to $30,000 each in adoption “fees.” The worst was that most of it was all perfectly legal, a fact that hindered the efficacy of international human rights activism against “trafficking” or “illegal” adoption.

Fortunately for Anyelí’s mother, there were actual crimes committed in her case: a falsified birth certificate, a documented abduction. Whether the Missouri courts will find those issues relevant remains to be seen. But for thousands of Guatemalans–as for Salvadorans and Argentines–one of the legacies of the wars and their aftermath is children disappeared, alive, and still unaccounted for, or known to be raised by other families.

But when Guatemalan and other Central American survivors of the civil wars and US proxy wars in the region in the 1980s and 90s arrive in the United States, they encounter other “security” forces that prosecute them for the crime of fleeing without the visas the US refused (and refuses) to grant them. Sometimes, they also take their children away here.

For example, in a case that has received widespread attention, Encarnación Bail Romero, one of 136 immigrant detained in a workplace raid of poultry processing plant in Missouri in April 2007, had parental rights to her six month old son terminated as a result. Hers was among the first raids the Department of Homeland Security pursued as part of a campaign they called “Operation Return to Sender,” which promised to aggressively prosecute “crimes” related to false identification, to sentence and hold people on those crimes, to conduct workplace raids, and to deport people whose status was suspect. So Bail was charged with possessing a fake ID, and served a year and a half in jail for that crime, waiting to be deported after she had served her sentence.

At first, her baby, Carlos, stayed with two aunts. But they were sharing a tiny apartment with six of their own children, and had very little money. When a teacher’s aid at one of their children’s school offered to find someone else to care for Carlos, they agreed. Three months later, the aid visited Encarnación in jail, saying a couple with land and a beautiful house wanted to adopt Carlos. She said no. A few weeks later, an adoption petition arrived at the jail, in English. Encarnación was not literate in Spanish, never mind English. Still, with the help of Mexican cellmate, a guard, and a bilingual Guatemalan visitor, she prepared a response to the court: “I do not want my son to be adopted by anyone,” she wrote on a piece of notebook paper. “I would prefer that he be placed in foster care until I am not in jail any longer. I would like to have visitation with my son.” Although she repeatedly asked judges and lawyers for help, it was a year before she found a lawyer who would take the case. By then, it was too late. The couple caring for Carlos complained that she had sent no money for his support and had not contacted him. A year and a half after she went to jail, a judge terminated her parental rights and permitted the other couple to adopt him. “Her lifestyle, that of smuggling herself into the country illegally and committing crimes in this country,” Judge Dally wrote, referring to the false ID, “is not a lifestyle that can provide stability for a child. A child cannot be educated this way, always in hiding or on the run.”

In another closely watched case, María Luis, a Guatemalan, a Maya-Kiché woman in Grand Isle, Nebraska (the site of another large workplace raid, although Luis had come to the attention of authorities earlier) had her parental rights terminated as well, following her arrest for lying to the police and subsequent deportation. María had taken her one-year old daughter, Angelica, to the doctor for a respiratory infection. Although she was a Kiché-speaker, the doctors instructed her in Spanish about how to care for the child. When she failed to arrive for a follow-up appointment, social services went to her house with the police. When asked if she was her children’s mother, María, frightened that she would be in trouble because of her immigration status, said she was the babysitter. The police arrested her on a criminal charge for falsely identifying herself, and she was deported. Angelica and Daniel, 7, went to foster care, and state social services began proceedings to terminate her parental rights. Federal immigration officials gave her no opportunity to participate in those proceedings, and she lost the children. In April, 2009, four years after the children were originally sent to foster care, the Nebraska Supreme Court restored her parental rights, saying that federal immigration officials had denied her due process rights in interfering with her ability to participate in the state proceedings, and that state officials had never provided her with an interpreter, never explained the process through which she could seek custody of the children, and never made any effort to reunify the family, largely because social service workers “thought the children would be better off staying in the United States.”

Stories like these are unusual, in that the mothers finally were able to obtain effective counsel and were able to contest the state social services efforts. National organizations sent out press releases; the cases were publicized in national media and on the Internet. More commonly, no one hears about these cases except the people who know the family and the officials involved. The Urban Institute, in two recent reports, has suggested that there may be hundreds of thousands of children affected by federal immigrant deportations, an unknown number of whom may also be caught in state social welfare cases.  An estimated 4.5 million children in the United States in 2005 had at least one undocumented parent.

Although there is no organized campaign to separate immigrant parents from Guatemala or elsewhere from their children, it is a consequence of workplace raids, criminalization of undocumented status, the absence of civil rights in immigrant detention (including the right to make a phone call to notify people of your whereabouts, or finding out what’s happened to your children), and stepped-up anti-immigrant attacks.  In October, when Alabama’s harsh anti-immigration law was passed, a mother told the UK Guardian that she was drawing up power-of-attorney papers to allow her niece to assume custody of her U.S. citizen children if she were detained by immigration officials. She described her concerns in exactly these terms: “I’m afraid I could disappear without anyone knowing what’s happened to me,” she said. … who knows what would happen to me in jail.”

Nearly two decades after the end of the civil wars in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America, mothers and children are still being disappeared, some of them in the United States.


Mom, enough

Time, Martin Schoeller photo

The photo of Jamie Lynne Grumet and her 3-year old son, Aram, on the cover of the May 21 Time magazine seems to have inspired an almost endless amount of commentary about how we in the US feel about breastfeeding beyond the first or second year, children sleeping in the family bed, and (implicitly) the related questions of sex and desire. I hesitate to think what would have happened if the Time photographer had photographed her with her oldest son, Samuel, who she is also still breastfeeding–who was adopted from Ethiopia. Can you imagine? For all the hoopla about whether Grumet is thinking clearly about the effect on Aram of this kind of (over-)exposure in a sexualized pose, she’s clearly setting some limits on how her family is going to channel the national Id (Samuel wasn’t on the Today Show, either). She’s willing to be a provocation for a conversation about extended breastfeeding, but not adoption or race.

In spite of myself, I find I like Grumet. She may be a gun-owning, evangelical Christian, stay-at-home, transracially adopting mom who is trying to save children with an NGO, the epitome of the kind of people I think are engaged in a culture war against feminists, queer folk, working moms, those of us who believe that the state has an obligation to people, and the postcolonial and anti-racist account of how intercultural adoption is both potentially exploitative and definitely produces impure and hybrid families, but she won’t stay true to type. She’s smart, sexy, and often vaguely feminist. She celebrated “Ethiopian Christmas” on January 6. She blogs against racism and homophobia. She posts drink recipes, refers to her husband as a stud-muffin, and worries about people deciding to adopt because they were inspired by Angelina Jolie. She has an edge.

Interestingly, I don’t like Elisabeth Badinter nearly as much, the self-described feminist whose book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, recently translated from the French, argues against exactly the kind of mothering Grumet stands for. Badinter argues that French motherhood, long protected from the very US American idea that “the ideal mother is enmeshed with her child bodily and mentally,” is under threat from a “new essentialism” that exalts breastfeeding, cloth diapers, and maternal instincts. Where French mothers have long been able to enjoy smoking, drinking, sex, and careers unencumbered by this kind of emmeshment with children and maternity, this standard is now endangered.

I’ve never personally wanted to breastfeed–I was horrified when our reprotech doctor suggested I consider taking hormones so I could breastfeed after my partner gave birth to our baby (what is the point of being a lesbian if not to divide that labor according to who wants to do it?). Still, what has struck me about breastfeeding since our son was born is how very difficult it is to do–that everything from hospital practice to obscenity statutes to workplace culture mitigates against it.  I’m sympathetic to Badinter’s complaints about what she calls “the ayatollahs of breastfeeding”–though I would pointedly rephrase that in a less racist way as “the fascists of breastfeeding.” But it seems to me that this perfectly emblematic of the double-bind of motherhood: you have to breastfeed whether you want to or not or you’re a jerk and a bad mother who is going to consign your child to a lifetime of bad health, obesity, and cancer, but you can’t because you have to work and will get chided for doing it in public because breasts make us think about sex especially when your child is older and breast pumps suck (in every way) and the only place you can pump is in the bathroom which is unsanitary and possibly so horrifying that your milk won’t even let down.

In fact, both “sides” of the Grumet vs. Badinter debate reek of the double-binds of maternity. Since the 1970s, declining real wages in the US have meant that for a steadily increasing percentage of the population, having a middle-class existence (or sometimes even bare survival) means having two adults in the workforce. While by 1980, the majority of mothers of preschoolers worked out of the home, the US American work place has not changed to accommodate mothers, or parents in general. In fact, US Americans on average are working more, not fewer, hours than we were in the 1970s. So we have a lot of small people who need full-time attention to manage basic safety and bodily functions, a society that benefits from the unpaid labor of parents–we do collectively have an investment in reproducing ourselves, after all–and what is our plan for who is going to watch the children? With a few interesting exceptions (see Madeleine Kunin on Oklahoma and California), we haven’t publicly subsidized daycare since World War II (when Roosevelt did), and daycare costs are astronomical–the not-great one down the street from me, the one with hardly any books costs more than my tuition, room, and board at a fancy private college did in the 1980s. And Jerry Brown is proposing to end subsidized daycare in California. We don’t even have federally mandated paid sick days. So, basically, the expectation is that it will all come out of mothers’ hides–in unpaid days off, jobs lost, not enough sleep. Or, mothers will work part-time or be underemployed while their children are young–which many have argued is the underlying cause of the drastic difference between men’s and women’s wages, to say nothing of the appalling rates of female poverty at all phases of the life cycle, but especially in old age, when all those years of not contributing to a pension or earning Social Security really bites you. And given that school gets out at 2 or 3, and half-days and school holidays are as common as dirt, have “young” children encompasses the entire period until they are old enough to look after themselves (which I think is actually 30; let me tell you about my 24-year old…).

Basically, we’ve privatized the reproduction problem. Increasingly, mothers are delaying childbearing until their late 20s, 30s, and even 40s, hoping to be established enough in a career or even a job to have some flexibility to have a child…which in turn has given us rising rates of infertility and impaired fertility. The other common “private” solution is the nanny, whose wages are lower (or more “competitive”) if she’s an undocumented immigrant who has left her children in her home country. We’ve not only privatized the problem, we’ve transnationalized it. Should it surprise us that our family policy resembles our corporate culture?

So while I agree on some level with Forbes guest blogger Helaine Olen about attachment parenting being the opposite of something one could do with a job, I also think we should be furious about the impossibility of combining work and children. I don’t think Badinter’s clarity and polemic on the subject gets us where we want to be. What I keep thinking about in all of this is early 20th century feminist advocates of the eight-hour day and an end to child labor. People like Jane Addams, who imagined eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for family and community. Not just parents but everyone has, or ought to have, an investment in leisure, in work and activism to build better communities. We need to find ways of saying “enough” to the demand that we work all the time, and begin to imagine a world where decent wages AND motherhood, health care, pensions, AND leisure, can coexist. That, it seems to me, is the core issue about the cultural politics of breastfeeding.

Happy mother’s day.

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