Cornell University Press

The Immigrant Dilemma: Between Carceral State and Welfare State

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This summer, the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization, told the story of an undocumented immigrant family from Honduras struggling to survive the pandemic in New Jersey. Following the father’s detention by ICE officials, the remaining six family members were left homeless until social workers helped them secure short-term housing. The film, “Undocumented in the Pandemic,” captures the heartbreaking conditions of immigrant families in the United States in 2020. But it also exposes perplexing dynamics that immigrants have long faced in Western states, caught as they are between the policing arm of the carceral state and the supportive arm of the welfare state.

Thousands of men, women, and children who migrated en masse to France before 1945 were also caught between these two wings of the state. Examining their interactions with officials, my book, Reproductive Citizens, uncovers the twin regulatory impulses of “disciplinary paternalism” and “supportive maternalism” that they confronted and that today’s immigrants continue to face—the former, a policing logic focused on controlling men and constraining their mobility; the latter, a welfare logic focused on aiding and provisioning mothers, children, and families. Though applicable in theory to all men and women, immigrants’ legal vulnerabilities in Western states, then and now, expose these dynamics with stark clarity.

Like today’s immigrants to Europe and the US, political and economic refugees around the world migrated to France from 1880 onward searching for a decent wage and stability in a turbulent age. And, like today, they found a warmer welcome in prosperous times than periods of economic depression. Yet, one factor set France apart from other Western countries: prior to 1945, a terrifying crisis of depopulation made immigrants desirable newcomers who would assure the longevity of the French national community through reproduction.

Many host countries, including the US, distinguished among “desirable” and “undesirable” immigrants using racial, ethnic, and national criteria. But depopulated France instead drew distinctions among the foreign-born on the basis of gender, sex, and sexuality. French employers, naturalization officials, police officers, and colonial administrators evinced a strong preference for heterosexually-married procreative men and women, or what I term reproductive citizens. From 1880 onward, they went to significant lengths to ensure that foreign-born bachelors put down roots as husbands and fathers, that foreign-born women bore many children and raised large families. Many immigrants agreed to this bargain because, like migrant families who pour into Europe and the US today, they had “nowhere else to go.”

If the pandemic lays bare the gendered workings of modern states, the Second World War similarly revealed France’s commitment to reproductive citizenship. Though the Vichy state deported 25 percent of French Jewry during WWII, it was the lowest percentage in Occupied Europe. Moreover, fewer Jewish children perished in France during the Holocaust than elsewhere. How was it possible?

Though the Vichy regime was viciously anti-Semitic, it was no less ferociously devoted to the demographic future of France. As such, police and law enforcement rounded up Jews in immigrant neighborhoods, eventually tearing even husbands and fathers out of the social fabric. Meanwhile, the French welfare state continued to subsidize immigrant families, and social workers and neighborly networks mobilized to protect Jewish mothers and children left behind.

With the waning of the depopulation crisis in post-WWII France and the onset of decolonization, the French nation-state’s boundaries shifted in more exclusivist directions. As France drifted away from inclusive forms of reproductive citizenship, it increasingly shored up the nation through racial, ethnic, and religious markers. And nonwhite women’s bodies became a bitter battleground in that national project.

In 1970, news broke that Black women in the former French slave colony of Réunion had endured forced sterilizations from white French doctors. Similarly, in September 2020, the world learned that American doctors at an immigrant detention center in Georgia had conducted involuntary hysterectomies on detained immigrant women. The comparison provides a final chilling example of how and with what consequences modern nation-states define their national community in exclusive terms and with recourse to women’s reproductive bodies.

*Featured image: “The Great Transportation Networks Used by Immigrants in France.” Source: Georges Mauco, “Les Étrangers en France: leur rôle dans l’activité économique. Avec. 100 cartes ou graphiques dans le texte et 16 planches de photographies hors texte.” (Armand Colin, 1932), 124.

Nimisha Barton serves as Director of Equity and Inclusion at an independent school in Los Angeles and as a diversity and inclusion consultant for institutions of higher education. She has published her research in French Politics, Culture and Society, and the Journal of Women’s History. She has also received awards and fellowships from the Georges Lurcy Charitable and Educational Trust, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Society for French Historical Studies, and the Western Society for French History. Follow her on Twitter @NimishaBarton.

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