Author Archives: Laura Briggs

Dr. Laura Briggs is Professor 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.

Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in Global Reproductive Perspective

As these years of an acute sense of crisis on the left roll on, I find myself wondering if reproductive politics—at least as encapsulated in my recent book, How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics—is the right subject for these times. From Cornel West’s takedown of Ta-Nehisi Coates to the soul-searching among my Leftbook crew about the failures of the Bernie Sanders campaign, surely the silence we most urgently need to disrupt is about empire, US and otherwise. As Naomi Klein and Opal Tometi recently wrote in The Intercept (in a piece you must read if you haven’t, reframing the rather silly West vs. Coates fight into something much more urgent and important):

“There is no radicalism — Black or otherwise — that ends at the national boundaries of our countries, especially the wealthiest and most heavily armed nation on earth. From the worldwide reach of the financial sector to the rapidly expanding battlefield of U.S. Special Operations to the fact that carbon pollution respects no borders, the forces we are all up against are global. So, too, are the crises we face, from the rise of white supremacy, ethno-chauvinism, and authoritarian strongmen to the fact that more people are being forced from their homes than at any point since World War II. If our movements are to succeed, we will need both analysis and strategies that reflect these truths about our world.”

Empire is my natural first language (as I wrote in books here and here), so why am I carrying around the first book I have written exclusively about the United States at a time when we so urgently need to talk about empire?

Nevertheless, it strikes me that reproductive politics might actually be a powerful way to talk about US empire, most obviously in how it relies on the work of race, nationalism, and the expansion of free market fundamentalism within the borders of the US—and hence, beyond them. I use reproductive politics in the older, socialist feminist sense in which the domain of the “reproductive” is that which is not “productive” in the capitalist sense. Another layer of meaning comes from Black and other women of color feminists in the US like Loretta Ross who speak of “reproductive justice” as not just the politics of whether or not to have children, but also the means to raise them—housing, jobs, food systems, freedom from police brutality, high-quality schools, and the like.

In the War-on-Poverty sixties, government and political movements alike agreed that it was a shared, collective responsibility to make sure that these things were available to all. That was never a promise that was kept, but the power of mid-century social movements was that they could appeal to a shared sense that government and business, alongside religious institutions and neighbors, owed this to the people of a nation. That optimistic sense of what it meant to belong to a society was taken up even more robustly by decolonization and socialist movements outside the US, with their calls for land reform, price controls for staple goods, collective child care, and state-run health care and social security. In the book, I show how the libertarian wind that blew across the country with Reagan (and Thatcher) relied centrally on a racism that was about moral disapproval of others’ families to persuade a majority of people that they not only would accept a smaller social safety net and reduced real wages for all but the top 1%, but wanted such a thing—from associating government transfer payments with (implicitly Black, explicitly immoral) “welfare mothers” to the waves of immigrant deportations that followed Clinton’s “Nannygate,” to lenders who targeted Black and immigrant women in particular for subprime mortgages, and the launching of the Tea Party movement as a claim that the Obama administration was going to bail out “losers’ mortgages” (it didn’t, but that’s another story). The foreclosure crisis was a kind of welfare reform redux, but it unabashedly took down great swathes of the middle class, not just poor folks.

But of course, as the book shows, the place where the US government learned all these moves was in the Third World, where it used debt as a club to undue the kinds of expansive ways that people had imagined the relationship of its people, as structural adjustment programs that operated principally in the realm of relations of reproductive labor–closing hospitals and schools, ending food subsidies, reducing the number of government jobs, and drastically contracting the role of the state in deeply libertarian ways. These were the “reforms” that drove migrants to the US to do nanny work in the first place. They too were accomplished through racism, through a set of claims about the lazy, spendthrift Third World, and could only be secured by closing borders so that those allegedly indolent workers didn’t cross borders to get new jobs as their home economies contracted brutally. These deeply unpopular economic changes, not surprisingly, brought authoritarian rulers to power.

The second conversation that the book is, I hope, contributing to, is about the work of whiteness and evangelical Christianity in producing a certain kind of highly exportable reactionary formation. Thanks to Margaret Atwood and the television series The Handmaids Tale, we can call it Gilead—an authoritarian regime that centers a white/ethno-chauvinist reproduction in nuclear families at the expense of women’s rights, queers, transgender folk, Although Phyllis Schlafly and the rise of right-wing “family values” women caught our attention in the 1980s, many commentators seem to have forgotten about them, and are mystified by the fact that a majority of US white women voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and Roy Moore in 2017. Meanwhile, these folks have never been closer to power, from Jeff Sessions campaign for “religious freedom” from his perch as attorney general, a campaign to ensure that US law “will never demand that sincere [Christian] beliefs be abandoned,” even or especially if that means denying the right to contraception, birth control, non-heterosexual marriage, or, god forbid, for trans people to use the bathroom. Mike Pence has campaigned for “conversion therapy” for gay folks, an end to abortion rights for women, and has worked to eliminate maternity and prenatal care for poor folks through the failed Republican American Health Care Act and his work to stop Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood. Betsy DeVos has begun the systematic transfer of education dollars from public schools to private and charter schools. A host of people at the Department of Health and Human Services have mounted campaigns insisting that birth control doesn’t work and most women who say they are raped are lying.

This political formation, which was launched as anti-feminist and anti-gay, has deep alliances with racist ethno-nationalisms and free market fundamentalism. It is also a profoundly transnational project, traveling first with evangelical Christian missionaries in the Reagan and Bush ersa from Africa to Latin America, and subsequently through Catholic circles. Most famously, the person most associated with the Guatemalan genocide, Efrían Ríos Montt, was a pastor in the Church of the Word from Reagan’s California. The Ugandan “kill the gays bill,” the Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014 was engineered by Massachusetts pastor Scott Lively of Abiding Truth Ministries, who has also been active in Latvia and Russia. These kinds of conservative Christian political formations followed the opposite trajectory as structural adjustment programs: from the United States to the region we used to call the third world. But in both instances, reproductive and kinship politics become economics and state policy. In a phrase, they’ve all become reproductive politics.

Reposted from the UCPress site:

Feminism’s Roy Moore problem

Dear Feminism,
We have a Roy Moore problem. It’s not the same one that David Brooks said the GOP has, though it’s related. It is that 6 in 10 white women in Alabama support Roy Moore. (15 years ago, I was telling vaguely disbelieving folks that polls told us that US Black and Latinx women supported feminism more than white women. No, they’d say. The problem is that feminism is full of white women. No, I’d say. The bigger problem is white women’s anti-feminism. After the Trump election, that ought to be easier to explain.) It’s the same problem we had with Phyllis Schlafly, who was also more popular than feminists.

We need to look beyond our Atwoodian notion of Wives, econowives, Marthas, and Handmaids to understand this. White female Moore-voters in Alabama are not stupid, hopelessly oppressed, or duped. They may not want particularly to be married to a 30-year old Roy Moore at 14, but they know which side their bread is buttered on. Bethany Moreton has it right in To Serve God and Wal-Mart. They know a lot about what feminism has to offer–about lower wages, endemic sexual harassment and assault, the difficulty of not being pregnant when birth control and abortion are hard to get, and the gendered division of labor at home. They just look at us gender traitors and un-women (Atwood again) and think we got a worse deal–low wages, exposure to all that sexual threat in public, housework and paid labor, scrambling to gather up what’s needed to keep households together. And they at least can hold out the hope of a women-at-home, elders and children supported kind of existence if they marry right. Or, barring that, maybe the double day and poverty wages and the whole thing, but at least what my mother’s generation called the pedestal. A reverence for female softness and vulnerability, their love and self-sacrifice for the children. And this whole #MeToo thing is actually feeding this sense that they are right.

We need a movement against sexual harassment that actually imagines a workplace–a world–where the shaming and blaming aren’t just shifted from the women being harassed to the men doing the harassing. (Although don’t get me wrong, this is, without a doubt, a huge improvement.) But actual procedures in workplaces (universities, colleges, the wider world) where it is possible to get accountability for making public space free from sexist sexual predation. I’m concerned that the mass resignations are feeding a “bad apples” narrative that is basically wrong. (Not unlike imprisonment’s account of criminality.) As long as their are power imbalances, sexism, and opportunity, these guys are going to be replaced with other sexual harassers. We need a better, clearer vision of what we’re demanding, including a way to real process to report (and hence potentially also to refute) sexual harassment allegations. Because after Emmett Till, we can’t just believe women.

Feminism, the Right, and #MeToo

Question: are Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein proxies for a war against Trump?

This is the question I’m increasingly fascinated by, in relation to the role of feminism in national politics. On the one hand, feminism appeared for a moment last year to have failed in more or less exactly the way the ERA failed: Serena Joy, oops, I mean Phyllis Schlafly split most women away from even the most trivial notion of feminism by calling on the notion of (white) “privilege,” especially women-only bathrooms. This was almost precisely replayed in 2016: 53% of white women voted for Trump over and against a pretty godawful version of feminism in the figure of Hillary Clinton (nb: there were good feminist arguments against the ERA, just as there were good feminist arguments against Clinton, which don’t bear repeating here but which I elaborate with some care in my new book, How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics). So an anti-queer, anti-trans, pro-“family” conservative politics got mobilized in relationship to white women’s fear of sexual violence outside the walls of the nuclear family.

But the evangelical Christian right, which has never been stronger than it is now, with Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, Neil Gorsuch, and a host of people at HHS all defending Christianity, heteronormativity, anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-abortion, birth control, maternity care, and anti-(poor) kid policies, can’t keep the genie in the bottle. Mobilizing women around fear of sexual harassment and violence brought down Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes on the right, and now threatens the darling of the Christian far-right, Roy “10 commandments” Moore, who really does advocate a Handmaid’s Tale-style Gilead. They’ve tried to weaponize accusations against Al Franken, by having Roger Stone get out ahead of the Lee Ann Tweeden accusation and then have an army of right-wing bots push the story. Accusations by media are incredibly vulnerable to political manipulation, and don’t actually put in place any mechanisms that enable women to report or demand a workplace free of sexual harassment or assault. Meanwhile, feminists have suggested that the hordes of enablers and procurers around people like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer need to step aside.

But a lot of this seems to me to be a proxy war aimed at Donald “grab them by pussy,” with more than 14 accusers, including a teenager he allegedly raped. If we can hang on to the notion that sexual misconduct is (a) incredibly common and generally unprosecuted, and (b) that allegations have to be refutable (because they are also frequently weaponized against queer folks–I have my own harrowing stories), feminist #MeToo politics may yet be the most potent weapon there is against the Trumpian right-wing coalition.

This is the Republican Party on Reproductive Politics


             The Republicans currently in power seem determined to end the availability of basic sexual and reproductive health services. Last week, the Senate, by the thinnest of margins, passed a bill now on the president’s desk that would allow states to defund Planned Parenthood. In many communities, Planned Parenthood the only provider of abortion (for which federal funds already cannot be used), but also birth control, pregnancy tests, free or cheap condoms, HIV and STD testing, breast/chest exams, physical exams, and a host of other health services. If the Senate confirms Neil Gorsuch and one other Supreme Court Kustice (hardly a long shot, with Ruth Bader Ginsberg in poor health at 84), Roe v. Wade is likely to be overturned, throwing abortion back to the states to decide. The various versions of the Republican health bill that failed to replace Obamacare eliminated birth control coverage and sharply limited maternity care. Women—as women—along with queer and trans folks are firmly in the Republican sights.

            What’s more, the GOP is loving the optics of white men controlling women’s reproduction. Old-school sexism is back, and it’s a political tactic to consolidate power on the right. It’s a risky strategy, because Republicans need the support of white women in particular to stay in power, a demographic that elected Trump and has leaned right in every presidential election since Bill Clinton’s. In the absence of a vigorous and effective feminist movement, though, it seems to be working.

It used to be that if you wanted to rally the right-wing troops, your misogyny had to be racially coded to mostly exclude white women. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected by campaigning against fraud by (implicitly Black) “welfare queens.” Even though white women and children were those most likely to get benefits from AFDC, Reagan’s welfare queen in the pink Cadillac who cashed her checks at the liquor store played to every stereotype white people had about “inner city” Black folks, and this racist misogyny delighted his followers, who loved to hate Black women. In 1994, California Governor Pete Wilson and anti-immigrant activists showed how very useful it could be to hate undocumented immigrant women, and a Proposition 187 campaign targeted all those pregnant women crossing the border, sucking up resources for prenatal care and then demanding seats in public schools for their children. Although 187 was ultimately defeated in court, it won with 59% of the vote, and set off a new wave of immigrant criminalization, detention, and deportation under the Clinton administration that has grown steadily since.

There have been signs for years that white women might be next. The religious right has been trying to prevent all women, regardless of race, from getting abortion or birth control, a “war on women” effort that clearly challenged the white exemption. Campaigns for “conscience clauses” that would allow pharmacists to avoid filling prescriptions for birth control have been making it very hard to get, especially in smaller towns in the South, where there may only be one pharmacy. So-called “TRAP laws”—targeted regulation of abortion providers—have multiplied in recent years, trying to put onerous restrictions on abortion clinics that would ultimately drive them out of business. Although last year’s Whole Women’s Health case seemed to put some limits on this strategy—the Supreme Court ruled that laws affecting clinics had to have some rational relationship to women’s health—countless abortion clinics have already been shut down. In a case that Supreme Court Neil Gorsuch had a bite at as a Circuit Court judge, Hobby Lobby further restricted access to birth control by insisting that corporations could have religious beliefs, and those beliefs might prevent them from allowing women to get birth control on their health insurance—though not, apparently, with their salaries.

While anti-abortion campaigns have always been couched in terms of concern about the fetus, I’ve never found these arguments persuasive. Virtually all regulation of abortion leaves open exceptions for rape and incest—that is to say, when women are “innocent” of wanting to have sex. If abortion opponents really believed that the procedure was murder, the conditions of conception wouldn’t matter—murder is always murder. But leaving the door open to these exceptions makes the purpose plain: it’s about regulating women, who are always guilty if they open their legs, and pregnancy is their punishment. If there was any doubt that this was so, the regulation of birth control makes it explicit. Women who have sex and get pregnant will raise any resulting children, whether they want to or not.

The Trump administration has taken this kind of pro-natalist control of women to the next level. One of its opening moves (alongside the ill-fated Muslim travel ban and the successful effort to restart the Dakota Access Pipeline) was to sign and expand the global gag rule, flanked by a coterie of smiling white men. More recently, Mike Pence tweeted out a photo with the same optics—a meeting with an all-white, all-male Republican “Freedom Caucus” about removing maternity coverage from the proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act. A smart analysis by Jill Filipovic made a terrifying point: this wasn’t a gaffe. This was deliberate, a strategy to whip up Republican male support for the bill. After running a campaign of aggrieved white masculinity—white men can’t count on all the good jobs anymore, throw the immigrants out and punish “the blacks” and Native people—the Trump administration is governing through explicit racism and out-and-out misogyny.

In How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics, I argue that the systematic dismantling of the social safety net—government support for families, households, and communities—of the past half-century was accomplished in significant part through holding up certain women for fear and loathing: single Black mothers as “welfare queens” and immigrant women with children as unfairly taking public benefits. The primary beneficiaries of this change were business—the largest employers after welfare reform were Walmart and the fast-food industry, paying starvation wages and offering no benefits. We have lived this political and economic realignment as ever-more stressed households and families, whether middle-class women postponing childbearing until after a long period of education and getting established in a job or queer folks seeking same-sex marriage to try to contort complex households into the shape of a “nuclear family” to replace a disappearing social safety net. The subprime lending crisis had the same dynamics: high-interest loans that disproportionately targeted unmarried Black and Latinx parents, regardless of whether they were eligible for better loans. Efforts to demand a bailout after Wall Street brought down the economy with predatory loans slammed into the Tea Party, born in a rant about “losers’ mortgages.” Again, racism and misogyny provided the political fodder to consolidate the power of Wall Street and exploitative business practices while curbing the redistributive power of government to even minimally correct the extractive power of the 1%, while mobilizing white voters (women and men) to keep Republicans in power.

While all of these kinds of misogyny have clearly affected white people, it’s been a while since they targeted white women as such, or better, targeted women broadly without focusing narrowly on women of color. The inability to prevent unwanted pregnancy clearly keeps women (heterosexual or not; rape is a great equalizer, affecting transmen as well) out of the halls of power and facing an increased likelihood of being fired, laid off or underemployed. Some of the new measures around abortion emerging in the current moment make it even clearer than usual that these controversies are fundamentally about whether women get to be full citizens and control their bodies. One proposed law in Iowa, for example, allows the parents of adult unmarried women to make abortion decisions for her. As Tina Fey recently said during an ACLU fundraiser, in remarks addressed white women (the majority of whom voted Republican in the last election): the Trump administration is coming after you next. “You can’t look away because it doesn’t affect you this minute, but it’s going to affect you eventually.”


Policing Northampton


Policing Northampton

   A month ago, a group of parents, school board members, and teachers in Northampton, Massachusetts asked for a meeting with the superintendent and the police chief about a “high-five” program that had been awkwardly rolled out. In January, without any clear explanation and only a little notice, a group of armed police officers showed up at the elementary schools to give kids “high fives” on the way into class. A flash of blue, then the officers disappeared without ever saying anything to the kids about why they were there.

By the time the meeting happened, the Chief and Superintendent had already suspended the program, citing concerns about undocumented kids in a context of massive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids. With its future uncertain, we talked about how the program felt for our kids—mostly kids of color. A foster parent talked about her kids’ trauma after being taken from their birth family by the police. Another said that the police in a different district had violently arrested their middle-schooler when she had a mental health crisis at school, and why her first grader was then alarmed to see the police at school. A parent talked about her happy-go-lucky, goofy black boy and how hard she worked to teach him to be deferential and keep his hands still and visible in the presence of the police. “Please do not teach my kid that it’s okay to high-five a police officer. I want him to be very respectful and a little afraid.” An immigrant parent talked about the deep, everyday terror the Trump administration’s raids have produced in immigrants, documented or not.

The police chief, Jodi Kasper, spoke about Ferguson, Missouri, and the aftermath of Mike Brown’s shooting. “It was a wake up call for me, and for police forces around the country,” she said. She spoke about the report of Obama’s President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and its recommendations for improving relationships and accountability to make police seem less like an occupying force in communities of color. She talked about transparency, public meetings, and trying to think about how to follow its recommendations to institute programs with youth. She also spoke of the police’s absolute commitment not to increase the fear of kids with immigrant parents. After the meeting, she decided to continue the program’s suspension.

In pulling the police from the school, Kasper joined a growing number of city officials doing surprising things to distance themselves from the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant raids. In Santa Cruz, CA, the police chief blasted Homeland Security for conducting a secret anti-immigrant raid under the auspices of gang enforcement. In Seattle, a City Councilmember called for that city’s police department to battle ICE agents in the streets. In Los Angeles, officials asked ICE agents to stop identifying themselves as “police.” In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh said undocumented immigrants could take refuge in City Hall. In sanctuary cities around the country, even as the Trump administration threatens their federal grants (which in small towns is basically school lunch), defiant police and public officials are refusing to cooperate with ICE, saying that it threatens their relationships with the communities they serve. Churches, schools, universities, cities, and police forces are forging a language of resistance that has positioned local civic institutions against a federal anti-immigrant program.

National news stories about Northampton didn’t get discussed in that context, though. An out-of-town blogger got wind of the suspension of the “high five” program, and in a post laced with homophobia and misinformation, stripped the issue of its immigration-enforcement context, and turned it into a thing about lesbian Black Lives Matter activists, the better to rally the right-wing troops. Which it did. From mainstream national news outlets to Bill O’Reilly, the end of the program was discussed as a question of Black community policing.

Apparently we’re growing used to the remarkable Sanctuary city story about police, but find a narrative of them concerned about the sensibilities of Black youth controversial. We shouldn’t, though. The Movement for Black Lives has long talked about immigrants, and its mobilizations over the past five years have shaped the thinking of activists, police, and publics.

The de-linking of immigration and anti-Black racism in the conversation about Northampton’s community policing initiative worked to obscure how interesting the resistance to the current Republican administration is becoming. Taken together with other kinds of small town actions, like the town-hall mobilizations in Republican districts like Murfreesboro, Tennesee and Cottonwood Heights, Utah to demand accountability on things like the Affordable Care Act, we’re seeing progressive activists rallying their neighbors.

There are a lot of stories being told to try to contain the burgeoning sense of a progressive mobilization. Activists are being paid, we hear, by Obama or George Soros or someone else (a story debunked by Tucker Carlson on Fox News, no less!). Police in West Mass are being bullied by gay-married Black Lives Matter activists.

Here’s the real story: a self-described “progressive” police department, together with the mayor and superintendent of schools in a small sanctuary city, listened to parents and teachers say that their presence at elementary schools was disruptive to the education of kids with disabilities, immigrant and other kids of color, particularly the youngest ones. It meant listening the Presidential commission’s on policing’s language: “agencies should avoid using law enforcement tactics that unnecessarily stigmatize you and marginalize their participation in schools.” It was a small thing; a small-town thing, a work-in-progress about the relationship of police and communities. But it should worry the Trump administration a great deal.

A version of this post was published by the Hampshire Gazette:

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


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


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.


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 and, among other.