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Pregnant, Seeking Asylum

Ronit Lentin

Pregnant on Arrival: Making the Illegal Immigrant, by Eithne Luibhéid, University of Minnesota Press, 304 pp, $25.00, ISBN: 978-0816681006

In January 2002 a Nigerian woman appealed to the Irish High Court to prevent her deportation on the grounds that she was pregnant. Her lawyers argued that her deportation contravened Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution which guarantees to defend and vindicate the right to life of the unborn, who Irish law considers to be “a person”. The woman, who became known as Ms O, had lost her asylum application and her appeal. In a judicial review of her deportation order, building her case on the right to life of the unborn, she argued that due to high Nigerian infant mortality rates the rights of her unborn child could not be guaranteed if she was deported. The Supreme Court rejected her appeal, apparently concluding that in the case of some (non-Irish) women the unborn is not a person.

In this book Eithne Luibhéid employs Ms O’s case alongside the infamous X Case to draw attention to the long history of Irish women travelling across borders, both as emigrants and as women seeking abortions abroad, and the shorter history of women immigrating into Ireland, to suggest that the Irish state’s pro-life position is one of the factors shaping its approach to managing migration in and out of the country. In making this proposition, she suggests that the Irish state views sexuality in heterosexual terms, and sees childbirth as something that happens only in heterosexual families. As such, Irish immigration policies are based on a convergence of gender, race and legal status.

There is a plethora of recent books on the topic of immigration to Ireland, as well as some about emigration from Ireland; there have also been several studies of Irish women emigrants. Considering this, it is surprising that Luibhéid’s is the first volume to explicitly discuss the link between gender and migration, which illustrates what she calls Ireland’s “heteronormative” regime, as I explain below.

Luibhéid’s main argument is that constructing pregnant migrant women, and in particular pregnant asylum seekers, as illegal immigrants has implications not merely for Ireland’s immigration and deportation regimes but also for the future of the children born to these women.

Before I continue, let me come clean. I have worked with Eithne Luibhéid, Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Director of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Arizona, when we co-organised a conference at Trinity College Dublin titled “Women’s Movement: Migrant Women Transforming Ireland” in 2003. Luibhéid’s paper for that conference was titled “Globalization and sexuality: Redrawing racial and national boundaries through discourses of childbearing”. In it she posited migrant women “childbearing against the state” and argued that “imagery and language about asylum seeking women’s childbearing has provided the Irish government with a means to renationalise the nation and at the same time to both draw on existing racial boundaries and create new ones”. That paper was the start of the project of which this erudite and persuasively argued book is the culmination.

In 2003 we were becoming aware that the government was starting to send deportation letters to parents of Irish citizen children, who under constitutional and legal provisions in place since 1922 were entitled to automatic citizenship on the grounds that they were born “on the island of Ireland”. Their parents were entitled, as per the 1990 Fajujonu Supreme Court ruling, legally to remain in Ireland to “give care and company” to their Irish citizen children. However, in 2003 we did not yet predict the government’s next step in curtailing in-migration through positioning pregnant asylum seekers as illegal immigrants. This book takes up the story, focusing on the racialisation of pregnant migrant women’s bodies which became the centre of the Irish government’s arguments in favour of the 2004 Citizenship Referendum, which, as I have written elsewhere, was both racialised and gendered. Luibhéid makes a novel intervention in a terrain extensively covered in both the academy and the media, and her book is set to become the yardstick by which to understand, not merely the dynamics of the Citizenship Referendum, but also the intersection of racism and (hetero)sexism in the relationship between the Irish state and migrant women. No reading list in university modules dealing with migration and Ireland will be able to afford to omit this important book.

As Luibhéid argues forcibly, the fact that pregnancy is rarely associated with sexuality, while a kiss between two people of the same gender is often regarded as “flaunting” sexuality, is due to the powerful operation of heteronormativity in everyday life. Heteronormativity, as she explains, is the understanding that makes the dominant (hetero)sexual order seem “natural, timeless, and unquestionable”. Heteronormativity means normalising sexuality in childbearing within patriarchal marriage, particularly among the dominant ethnic, racial and class groups. Furthermore, Luibhéid proposes that heteronormativity is rooted in white supremacy and seeks to use the state to regulate sexuality and designate “which individuals are truly ‘fit’ for the full rights of citizenship”. The book seeks to show how the Irish state’s efforts to police against pregnant migrant women not only remade and continues to remake Ireland’s patriarchal sexual norms, but also “re-nationalises the nation” precisely at a point of crisis, when migrants are seen to destabilise nationalist certainties.

I found reading the book slow, I wanted to mark almost every paragraph as pertinent and revealing. The argument unfolds gradually through a thorough study of the history of immigration to Ireland since the 1990s to propose that, contrary to dominant discourses, the “illegal immigrant” is not a “type” of person but rather a “position of social and political vulnerability that is constructed through multiple relations of power”. This argument has been made by several people writing about Ireland and immigration, but Luibhéid’s unique contribution is demonstrating how normative sexual regimes shape where and how the line gets drawn between legal and illegal immigrant status through the link between birth and nation.

Indeed in Ireland this link between birth and nation is palpably obvious in the long history of positioning Irish women as the carriers of the nation’s honour and “common good”. Thus, the 1937 Constitution inserts women as crucial to the common good: article 41.2.1 declares that “the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved”. As the constitution also upholds the sanctity of the heterosexual family, it is unsurprising that generations of women considered sexually deviant were incarcerated in Magdalene laundries, often for years. This was part of a culture of incarceration: Ireland locked up one in one hundred of its citizens in laundries, industrial schools, mental hospitals and “mother and baby” homes, where women pregnant out of wedlock were forced to give their babies for adoption. Moreover, repeated referendums and heated debates about abortion in the Irish context, rekindled after the recent death of seventeen-weeks pregnant Savita Halappanavar, forcefully demonstrate the centrality of female sexuality to the perception of Irishness.

Chapters in this book – all charting the relations between migrants and the Irish state – work through the indelible link between birth and nation. They argue that the line between legal and illegal status can be crossed in both directions, and that migrants should never be conflated with their legal status, even though legal status – which is struggled over, changed and remade ­– shapes their life possibilities. The book is based on field research in Ireland, and on conversations with many asylum seekers and their advocates, as well as a thorough trawl of political and media discourses; one gets the feeling that Luibhéid left no stone unturned in grounding her argument not merely in theory but also in the everyday experiences of women asylum seekers in 1990s and early 2000s Ireland.

She begins, in Chapter 1, with a critical analysis of speeches delivered by the then minister for justice John O’Donoghue in 2001, in which he characterises migrant women’s pregnancies as “evidence” of their illegality. Like other cabinet members, he was certain not only that migration plus pregnancy meant illegality, but also that asylum-seeking women were taking advantage of Ireland’s “generosity”, and were nothing more than “citizenship tourists”. And he was not alone. I have written of an encounter I had with the then Fianna Fáil minister for trade, Micheál Martin, who told me he knew of a Nigerian woman who had quintuplets, had the first one in Nigeria, and “hopped on the plane to have the other four in Ireland”. When confronted with the irrationality of this story, the minister said he agreed that “airlines should not allow heavily pregnant women on board”. Martin apparently remains captivated by the spin; when I met him in Cork recently and reminded him of this absurd story, he didn’t deny it but rather told me he had a letter from an obstetrician who had told it to him.

In Chapter 2 Luibhéid uses her interviews to propose that Ireland’s immigration control system was poorly planned and exclusionary, and that childbirth offered some migrants a means of negotiating barriers: asylum-seeking women who were pregnant were advised to exit the asylum system and instead claim residency rights on the strength of having a citizen child, possible until the amended Citizenship and Nationality Act of 2004.

In Chapter 3 she broadens her scope to look at Ireland’s asylum system by exploring the welfare system. In particular she explores the direct provision system that denies asylum seekers the right to work or to access third level education, and whereby they are monitored and controlled by asylum hostel managers, mostly private operators. Conditions in these hostels are despicable, particularly for women, who often have to share rooms with total strangers, find it hard to mind their children adequately, and are continuously propositioned by men prowling around these hostels looking for sex, aware of asylum seekers’ dire finances. Yet, despite the deprivation, and despite the fact that many remain in the system up to ten or twelve years, with a paltry allowance of €19.10 per adult per week, and despite the fact that seeking asylum is a legal right, asylum seekers in Ireland are cast as illegal and deportable migrants – even though, until 2004, giving birth to an Irish citizen child enabled some asylum seekers to become legally resident.

Chapter 4 develops the argument by looking at the role played by Ireland’s conservative attitudes to abortion in affecting immigration controls. Thus abortion, which remains illegal – apart from the narrow provision of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill enacted in 2013 in the wake of Savita Halappanavar’s death, twenty-one years after the X Case Supreme Court ruling, permitting abortion in Ireland when the pregnant woman’s life is deemed to be in danger – becomes a factor in immigration control.

The pinnacle of the book, for me, is the analysis, in Chapter 5, of the 2004 Citizenship Referendum itself. The referendum was enacted by a government anxious about the supposed infringement by pregnant migrants of the ‘integrity of Irish citizenship’ and of Ireland’s immigration regime as a whole. With the support by a near 80 per cent majority of the Irish electorate, the Referendum led to a change of the hitherto automatic jus soli citizenship entitlement to all children born on the island of Ireland. Luibhéid argues that the Referendum re-established the citizen/noncitizen distinction and reaffirmed pregnancy as ‘evidence’ of migrant illegality. Using the notion of ‘reproductive futurism’, the argument here is that, apart from depriving migrant parents of the right of residency, ‘the referendum harnessed heteronormative logics to ensure that not just migrants but also migrants’ children and their children’s children would remain largely excluded from a range of resources, possibilities and futures.’

I found this chapter fresh and telling particularly as someone who has not only researched and written about the Citizenship Referendum but who was also active in canvassing against it. I was a founding member of the Coalition Against Deportation of Irish Children (CADIC). While not succeeding in preventing the referendum, after the government had won it the CADIC did help to bring about the opening of the path for migrant parents of children born in Ireland (racialised by the government as ‘Irish born children’ or ‘IBC’) to apply for residency. This some 18,000 migrants did even though, as Luibhéid documents, they were not permitted to apply for family reunification. I also appreciated Luibhéid reminding us that the histories she unearthed of migration, diaspora and displacement foregrounded not only what she calls ‘violent Irish state heteronormativity’, which rendered pregnant migrants illegal, but also the importance of addressing colonialism, global capitalism, geopolitical inequalities, racism, and gender violence as interlinked with the struggles over reproductive futurism.

Broadening the picture yet again, Chapter 6 discusses other ways that heteronormativity controls sexualities and migrations. These involve heterosexual marriages, historically a privileged way of legally entering the country and gaining residence and citizenship, but no longer (the chapter describes how non-EU spouses of EU citizens are another illegal category); same-sex couples (who do not enjoy similar rights in relation to immigration and asylum as heterosexual couples); prostituted women (I do not agree with Luibhéid in calling them ‘sex workers’, but that is another discussion, for another time); and domestic workers. All of this indicates the complex ways that sexualities and legal status interlink in the lives of migrant women.

If hitherto gendered analyses of migration to and from Ireland took ‘gender’ to mean male versus female within a heterosexual framework, this thoroughly documented and beautifully written book offers a broader sweep, highlighting the missing link between migrations and sexualities, and the way that sexuality, understood not as personal identity but as a regime of power, shapes designations of who is a legal or illegal migrant. Crucially, this is also an eminently readable book, which not only academics and students but also social activists and migrants themselves will find useful in thinking about and campaigning against racialising, sexualising, heteronormative migration regimes.

Ronit Lentin is Associate Professor of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin. Among her many books are After Optimism: Ireland, Racism and Globalisation (with Robbie McVeigh, 2006), and Migrant Activism and Integration from Below in Ireland (with Elena Moreo, 2012).

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