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Recent Allegations Against ICE and Forced Sterilization as Racially Gendered Social Control

On September 14, 2020, a nurse by the name of Dawn Wooten working at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia filed a whistleblower report with the Inspector General that “raises red flags regarding the rate at which hysterectomies are performed on immigrant women under ICE custody at ICDC” (p. 2). Project South, one of the advocacy groups that signed the report, states that multiple immigrant women detained at the facility have reported similar concerns as well. Since this story broke multiple first hand accounts have come to light, including those of three women of color detained at this facility who say they were coerced into or were never consulted prior to going through medical procedures that make it unlikely or impossible for them to conceive a child, including procedures like salpingectomies and hysterectomies.

While ICE has not commented on these claims and its supporters, such as Former ICE Director Tom Homan, have been quick to fully place any potential blame for these forced sterilizations on LaSalle Corrections (the private firm that operates the facility) and the health care providers employed there, ICE is responsible for the hiring and vetting of these private firms and shares responsibility for these heinous crimes. Forced sterilization has a long, historical relationship with both people of color and with the American government, and cavalier reactions like that of Tom Homan minimize the severity of these allegations.

Throughout American history women have had everything from their reproductive health to their family lives consistently invaded by outside interference, leading Mary Hawkesworth to conclude that “in stark contrast to the liberal myths that the private sphere is insulated from intrusions by the state, black women have never enjoyed the privileges of privacy” (p. 95). In her discussion of the the different ways in which women of color and men of color have been oppressed throughout history, Hawkesworth points out that the regulation by the state of women of color’s sexuality, reproduction, child rearing, and relationship building matters has been a constant pillar of American culture. Whereas institutional efforts to oppress men of color have traditionally involved incapacitation within the criminal justice system, institutional efforts to oppress women of color frequently manifest as state sanctioned activities that interfere with their reproductive rights, with eugenics inspired sterilization being one such activity.

Despite being commonly associated with Nazi Germany, the ideas behind eugenics are American in origin. While scholars in Great Britain contributed to this discourse, eugenics originated in the United States and the first eugenics-based forced sterilization law was passed in Indiana in 1907. Patricia Hill Collins divides the history of eugenics into three periods: 1) the ‘pre-World War I’ period, during which the ‘rational’, ‘scientific’ basis of the eugenics movement emerged, 2) the ‘interwar’ period, during which eugenics was openly used as the basis of many public policies throughout the world, and 3) the ‘post-World War II’ period, which saw the “end” of eugenics. Collins argues that as knowledge of the atrocities committed in the name of eugenics by the Nazis during the Holocaust became widespread, by the 1950s “the term eugenics was so maligned that it vanished from scholarly and public policy arenas” (p. 255).

Despite this disappearance, many of the ideas behind eugenics continued to persist well passed the abandonment of the term. Collins explains that eugenics “conceptualized bodies as sites of immutable difference and used this basic assumption to explain social phenomena” (p. 258). In other words, eugenics broke down differences between bodies into mutually exclusive categories (e.g. sexes, races, sexualities, etc.), then ranked each category and assigned it a social value, with predictable results (man > woman, black < white, etc.). Collins explains that Eugenics uses its supposedly objective evaluations of the social value of these categories to apply a binary label of either “fit” or “unfit”: these terms, like many aspects of Eugenics, are borrowed from evolutionary biology but applied in a manner that is not supported by it. Using its own vague distinction between humans and animals, eugenics intentionally created a space in between the two, allowing eugenicists to view those whom they considered “unfit” as either the same as or slightly more than an animal but always less than human.

Considered one of the fathers of the Italian eugenics movement, Cesare Lombroso was a criminal anthropologist whose efforts throughout the latter half of the 18th century to prove the existence of hereditary criminality contributed greatly to the adoption of eugenics-based crime control measures. Lombroso believed that certain people were ‘born criminals’ or ‘atavistic’, creatures less than human and more similar to apes and other evolutionary ancestors than they are to law-abiding humans. Lombroso theorized that by examining certain physical features, which he coined “atavistic stigma”, an individual could be identified as atavistic. Lombroso’s theory of atavism fit the ‘less than human’ narrative of eugenics perfectly, and biological theories of crime became the first hegemonic theory of crime used by the then-youthful field of criminology. Biological explanations of the disproportionate rate of crime amongst non-white populations were used to justify the use of overly aggressive crime control measures against people of color, and would set the groundwork for what Khalil Gibran Muhammed refers to as the process of ‘racial criminalization’ through the epistemically violent use of crime statics to perpetuate “the stigmatization of crime as ‘black’ and the masking of crime among whites as individual failure” (p. 3).

Whereas biology-based criminological efforts have primarily targeted men of color through incapacitation-based institutions like mass incarceration, they have approached the control of women of color in different manners, commonly by targeting their reproductive rights including state-sanctioned forced sterilization. This is the form that many of the original American eugenics laws took, including the previously mentioned Indiana law, “which made sterilization mandatory for criminals, idiots, rapists, and imbeciles in state custody” but was disproportionately used against women of color. According to Collins, at least 30 states legalized the forced sterilization of certain populations for explicitly “eugenic” purposes between 1919 and 1964. According to Disability Justice, most of these explicitly eugenics-based forced sterilization laws were overturned in the 1970s, but their legacy will not soon be forgotten. For example, Collins reports that in 1972 alone over 100,000 black women were sterilized by the federal government.

While ICE has declined to comment on the recent allegations and an investigation into these forced sterilizations is ongoing, allowing this sort of human rights abuse to occur under their watch is not out of character for ICE. This is only the latest of a long list of human rights abuses committed by ICE against immigrants to the United States, a group whose identity is frequently treated as less than human and inherently criminal (to the point where they are frequently labelled “illegal”). Under the Trump administration, ICE has become an instrument of aggressive and brutal formal social control over marginalized members of American society, many of whom have done nothing but contribute since arriving. The use of a form of state violence with historical interconnection with vile ideologies like eugenics and biological criminality against these marginalized women, whose choice to create a family and future have been robbed of them, cannot be allowed to occur without repercussion.

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