Why White Evangelical Women Voted for Roy Moore

by Susan Ridgely
December 15, 2017

 

With exit polls fresh from the recent Alabama U.S. Senate election, many observers are scratching their heads and wondering why 63% of white women voters in Alabama voted for Republican Roy Moore, in spite of the fact that he faced numerous allegations of sexual predation against young girls. While surely not all of these white women voters were evangelical Christians, given that the race was in Alabama, which is 89% Christian (of which nearly half are evangelical), we can safely assume that many were.

A stronger understanding of the doctrine of evangelical Christianity can get us closer to comprehending why many white evangelical women supported Moore, in spite of the allegations.

Evangelical voters in Alabama were long familiar with Moore as a judge who was not afraid to stand up for America as a Christian nation. Moore became a hero of the evangelical movement in 1997 for his defiance of a court order to remove the Ten Commandments monument from the central rotunda in the Alabama state judicial building. By election day in 2017, however, Moore’s hero status had crumbled under the weight of multiple allegations that he attempted to sexually assault teenage girls. Despite the fact that reports in the Washington Post had substantial evidence to support these claims, a majority of evangelicals, who have long fought to preserve the purity of young girls, still voted for Moore. Exit polling shows that among Alabama evangelicals that voted, 80% voted for Roy Moore, composing his most steadfast supporters in this election. This seemingly counter intuitive choice (especially for women), however, makes more sense when we understand evangelical’s beliefs in the fallibility of men on the one hand, and their longer-term objective of bringing America, God’s chosen nation, in line with what they understand to be God’s desires.

From the evangelical perspective, humanity is tainted with original sin and, therefore, all humans are susceptible to temptation.

For even those conservative evangelicals who may have thought the allegations had an air of truth, Moore’s transgressions might have been seen as more of a comment on the culture and less specific to the man.  For example, evangelicals view Friday night television as light pornography with its steamy scenes and scantily clad female stars of all ages. They also are concerned by the increasing sexualization of young girls by mainstream media. Combine these views with their belief in men’s natural inclinations to sin, Moore’s sins are the sins of a society run amok, or so evangelicals have been told by influential Christian conservative organizations like Focus on the Family for more than three decades.

According to this logic, Moore’s votes in Congress would be the ones that put the country back on the right track to a Godly government.

Focus on the Family teaches that there are three organizing structures in society – the church, the family, and the government – and each was in charge of its own divinely ordained sphere of influence. Within this framework, the government exists to maintain cultural equilibrium and to provide a social order. It should not interfere in the realm of the family or the church by providing services, such as welfare, which would produce a dependency on the government while decreasing an individual’s reliance on themselves, their families and their church. A true government, from this position, would act and legislate in accordance with Focus’s conservative Christian biblical interpretations, interpretations that support heterosexual patriarchy, embedded white supremacy, a pro-life and anti-feminist agenda, and a Christian-centered view of the country.

When America remembers its place as God’s chosen nation, this logic goes, it acts in accordance with God’s vision (and vice versa). From this perspective, then, conservative Christians, who are committed to this vision of the government, are best suited to transform American society into one that cares for the needy (particularly the unborn) and those who have been made dependent on the state through the welfare system. Thus, conservative Christians, like Moore, have to become involved in politics not because they are blameless, but because they can ensure that the country works with God’s plan and not against it. In fact, evangelicals point to the recent choices to embrace a secular America as having clear and lasting negative social consequences: since the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 70s, Christianity has been displaced from the public square, divorce rates skyrocketed, addiction is commonplace, and abortions – according to this view – occur with alarming frequency.

Unlike the pro-choice Democrat candidate Doug Jones, Moore would vote to protect what evangelicals identify as the most vulnerable Americans –fetuses– and would work to criminalize abortion – what evangelicals believe to be murder.

Since the 1980s, testimonies about abortion crafted for evangelical audiences have asked their listeners to identify with the fetus as a child, rather than with the torturous decision a mother may face about whether to have an abortion to preserve her ability to maintain her current family or to avoid future hardships. These stories frame women who have had abortions as selfish people whose total disregard for life can be seen in their viewing their unborn children as inconveniences or, perhaps, worse yet, as beings not perfect-enough to be loved. They frequently remind readers of what Jesus said in Matthew: “Whatever you did to the least of these you did to me also.” For these Christians then, pro-life politics serve to remind mothers, fathers, politicians, and others to love unborn children just because they existed, because they were weak, and in spite of their problems. In doing so, these stories mirror the ways that many Christians describe God’s loving them, even when they feel worthless. In this way, voting pro-choice or pro-life becomes emblematic of whether one is oriented toward a proper understanding of God’s love for his children, a love that manifests itself in both comfort and consequences. It’s true that for many voters, this single issue may have been enough for them to cast their ballots for the pro-life Moore. It is also true that his pro-life vote demonstrates to conservative Christian voters that he will help to bring America back to God’s path of caring and Christianity: as he had tried to do in 1997, he will stand up against the strong influence of liberalism in politics.

Moreover, Moore’s pro-life position signals to evangelicals that he is Christ-like in his unconditional love of the most vulnerable, even though he is fallen and broken like the rest of us.

Many evangelicals reason, “God will judge Moore and his accusers in their time.” These voters believe that while Moore’s sin is individual, society’s sins are collective. Therefore, they must vote for politicians who will return America to its rightful place as “one nation under God” or all of society will face God’s wrath.

The choice of many evangelicals in Alabama’s recent Senate election, including women, was not to focus on the individual sin, but rather the greater communal good of ensuring that government works towards the larger plan of securing heterosexual, nuclear families who can live freely in a Godly America. Faith, not gender, helps to explain the votes of white evangelical women.

 

— Susan B. Ridgely is associate professor of American religion at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Practicing what the Doctor Preached: At Home with Focus on the Family (Oxford, 2016).

— Photo credit: America Magazine




The Gender Policy Report Welcomes New Curator Ryan Allen to the Immigration and Refugees Page

Ryan Allen is an Associate Professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.  Professor Allen’s research focuses on community and economic development in immigrant communities in the United States. He brings to the Gender Policy Report a strong knowledge of federal immigration policy, a wealth of expertise in how immigrants adjust to life in the United States, and direct research experience with immigrant communities in the Twin Cities. His approach to research is informed by a cross-cutting understanding of how gender, immigrant status and other forms of inequality intersect. Allen’s most recent research has been with immigrants in the 1940s who were among the earliest public housing residents in the United States. He is also researching how legal status impinges upon rental affordability for unauthorized immigrants and engagement practices used by urban planners who work with immigrant communities. We look forward to Professor Allen’s contributions to the GPR’s Immigration and Refugees page.




Tax Proposals: A Missed Opportunity for Addressing Implicit Gender Bias

by Janet G. Stotsky
November 28, 2017

Broadly, the tax bill before Congress (in both its House and Senate versions) proposes to cut the standard corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent, reduce personal income tax rates, reduce a range of tax preferences, including the deductibility of state and local income taxes, and increase the child tax credit and the standard deduction. The “sunsetting provisions” of many of the changes in the personal income tax suggest that the most important long-run effect would be the reduction in the corporate tax rate, and experts agree that the bill will bring disproportionate benefits to the wealthiest of the wealthiest Americans.

It’s difficult, though, to see how the tax bill will perform in terms of gender equity. All we can say for sure is that it represents a missed opportunity to move toward a more gender-neutral individual tax system or to use the personal income tax to better support working women.

Let’s examine income taxes from a gender-differentiated perspective. As I have written elsewhere, global tax codes based on individual filing can contain explicit gender bias in several different ways, including explicitly assigning different tax rates to male and female taxpayers, permitting tax preferences only for male or female taxpayers, or assigning joint business or asset income only to males.  In the United States, there is no such explicit gender bias in the personal income tax code. Instead, the personal income tax is based on joint filing for married taxpayers (aggregating spouses’ income before computation) and individual filing for singles. Married couples have the option to file individually, but generally don’t because it tends to raise their tax bill. And the U.S. corporate income tax applies taxation to the corporate entity, thus ostensibly removing gender from its calculation.

Implicit gender biases are a different story. The implicit bias in the U.S. personal income tax arises because women and men differ systematically in the ways they earn and spend income.

That is, behavioral differences mean the tax code inevitably reflects and can enforce gender bias. Here’s an illustration: If a deduction is available for unreimbursed work expenses that are predominantly borne by men (say, for instance, the purchase of uniforms or tools) but not for work expenses that are predominantly borne by women (say, for instance, the cost of emergency day care or finding secure transportation after dark), an implicit bias against women would result in tax disparities.

U.S. working women earn, on average, less than men, with recent estimates indicating that full-time working women’s wages are about 79 percent of men’s. Even after accounting for variables like education, fields of concentration or employment, years of experience, and so on, there is still an unexplained gap of about 8 percent, which social scientists mostly ascribe to gender discrimination.

But because the U.S. personal income tax is progressive, taking, on average, a higher proportion of tax from higher-earning households than from lower-earning households, some argue that the tax code actually enshrines an implicit gender bias against men (who earn more on average). They are wrong: like virtually all income taxes globally, the U.S. tax code actually reflects a broad consensus that a progressive income tax, which, to some degree, “evens out” after-tax income between richer and poorer households, is fair. Further, a change in the tax code to reduce progressivity might be viewed as having a disproportionately negative effect on lower-income households, in that it would shift the burden of the tax system toward them.

Since women earn less than men, a shift away from progressive taxation would most affect women—and it would do nothing to help achieve gender equality in pay.

Bear in mind that, though women earn less than men, on average, ownership (or control) of wealth is more even, according to recent estimates. Why is this? For one, women tend to outlive men, so widows inherit (or acquire control over) the assets of their late husbands; in turn, that wealth is presumably bequeathed in relatively equal shares to sons and daughters. Additionally, in divorce, many states require equal division of assets acquired from earnings during the marriage, even if one spouse earned more than the other. Thus, asset holdings could very well end up more evenly distributed by sex than income. And for several decades, women have been acquiring higher education at a higher rate than men, even though they remain underrepresented in many of the highest earning occupations, such as science and engineering. This growing advantage of women with tertiary educations means that the gap in earned income is shrinking, especially for younger cohorts of women, constituting one more channel by which asset ownership is equalizing across the sexes.

Considering all these vectors, let’s return to examining key proposed tax reform provisions from a gender perspective:

  • Corporate tax rate cut: To the extent that asset holdings (or control) are relatively equal by sex, there is no implicit bias of this first-round effect on aggregate, though it surely worsens the relative economic situation of households with low asset holdings, where single women are overrepresented.
  • Personal tax rate changes: The highest-income taxpayers (those in the top 1 percent of the country’s income distribution) will reap the greatest long-term benefits from these changes. The reduction in progressivity, as noted, can be viewed as implicitly biased against women, who earn less than men, on average. The overall pattern of benefits and losses varies a lot for women, depending on where they live, how they earn income, and what kind of deductions they take. Some women will save a considerable amount of taxes under the reform, while others will pay significantly more taxes, depending on their personal circumstances.
  • Child tax credit expansion: This change would benefit lower and middle-income households with children, particularly helping working women, who bear a disproportionate burden of responsibility here and would gain both monetary benefits and time savings should the government assume more responsibility for childcare costs. Still, the proposed increase is relatively modest, in comparison to the cost of childcare as well as in comparison to the overall proposed changes to the personal income tax code.

Over the longer-term, the loss of federal revenue resulting from this tax reform might lead to cutbacks in government spending, with uneven effects on women and men. Social safety net program cuts would certainly harm women, who receive a larger share of key programs’ spending (including support for low-income households with children and Medicaid). Another significant failing of this tax reform is that it misses the opportunity to undertake fundamental reforms to reduce the “marriage tax”, whereby households are discouraged from dual-earning. That is, because there is a higher effective tax rate on second incomes, reflecting the progressive rate structure of the tax code. Women (typically considered the “second earners” in heterosexual households) are discouraged from workforce participation, increasing their risk of poverty, reducing their work experience, and reinforcing gendered wage gaps.

A more radical reform plan might move to taxation on an individual basis, as is common in most other developed countries. Such systems take better account of the wide variety of households and reduce “marriage taxes.”

Some European countries have even noted these gender equality benefits when moving away from joint or household filing to individual filing. Without undertaking a more systematic overhaul that accounts for the ways women are economically disadvantaged in the U.S., any tax reform is a missed opportunity to leverage fiscal incentives toward gender parity in the labor market.

Janet G. Stotsky is a self-employed consultant on fiscal policies and gender and economics and a retired economist with the International Monetary Fund.

— Photo by Phillip Taylor




Nondisclosure Agreements: Sexual Harassment and the Contract of Silence

By Annie Hill
November 14, 2017

On October 5, 2017, the New York Times revealed that Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, paid eight settlements in response to allegations of sexual harassment, dating back to 1990. The article detailed a behavioral pattern in which Weinstein lured women into meeting with him on the pretense of work and then appeared in various states of undress, demanded a massage, touched women without consent, or asked them to watch him shower. Weinstein’s conduct was condemned, but contextual questions soon emerged: who helped him create opportunities to harass and assault women, and who refused to see the harassment and hear victims’ complaints? Many people privately knew about Weinstein’s behavior. His sexual violence did not become public, however, due to the use of nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) in settlements with victims. Purportedly part of the solution to harassment (i.e., legal settlement), NDAs can facilitate harassment by keeping sexual violence secret and victims silent.

The Weinstein scandal exposes not only his violence against women, but also how NDAs can be used pre-emptively and post-harassment to silence victims and threaten them with sanction for contractual breaches.

Pre-emptive NDAs protect information before it is shared or known, and are often in place to protect trade secrets or the reputations of companies and individuals. For example, companies obtain NDAs before providing details about new products to ensure the information is not stolen or given to competitors. Companies also use confidentiality agreements to stop employees from saying anything damaging to an employer’s reputation. Weinstein Company employees signed contracts prohibiting them from making statements that could harm its reputation or the reputation of employees, including executives. This type of NDA contracts employees’ speech as a condition of employment—a remarkably coercive practice that is conducive to hostile workplaces because harassers know their coworkers are particularly vulnerable and unable to speak out. A third use of NDAs occurs after harassment when a harasser or employer enters into a legal settlement with the victim(s) that forbids speaking about the case as a condition of settlement.

NDAs are designed to control and protect information, but the live question is what kinds of information should fall under their protection.

In the context of sexual harassment, NDAs are pernicious contracts. People who engage in harassment try to control victims and information, and employers align their interests with harassers when they use NDAs for reputational damage control. NDAs do not offer equal protection to both parties because they disable victims from talking about experiences that impacted their professional lives and enable harassers to hide information pertinent to their professional reputations. Contrary to NDAs that permit parties to do business together or protect proprietary rights, NDAs that hide harassment withhold crucial information from the profession and the public.

Employing a harasser is both an institutional liability and a public hazard. An article in The Guardian on sexual harassment in academia notes how NDAs allow harassers to change employers while hiding a history of professional misconduct. Once employed at a new institution, it can take multiple years and victims before a harasser’s behavior is, again, reported and addressed. If new victims obtain settlement, NDAs can, again, be utilized to protect the reputation of the employer and, by extension, the harasser. A cycle of victims speaking out and then being silenced via settlement works with, not against, the cycle of sexual violence.

US federal law prohibits retaliation for reporting discrimination, yet NDAs offer legal routes to discourage victims from reporting harassment and sharing information with others.

According to a 2002 decision by the National Labor Relations Board, employees have a right to discuss sexual harassment complaints among themselves and to engage in concerted activity, such as union organizing, to protect others. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 defines interference with employees’ right to concerted activity as an unfair labor practice. Today, a long tradition of women’s “whisper networks,” warning others about sexual harassers, is being transformed into public speech through social media platforms. While the law may be wielded against victims who speak publicly, they must because the law often fails to prevent and correct sexual harassment. Warning each other is still women’s work.

At this writing, more than 80 women have publicly stated that Weinstein harassed, assaulted, or raped them. The eight reported settlements only hint at the scale of this one man’s four decades of sexual predation. Serial harassers are invested in silencing victims, especially those who fight all the way to settlement and pose a real risk of exposure. The New York Times called on Weinstein to release his accusers from NDAs, and some women breached them to come forward. It is now essential to question the logic and law that forces victims to fight to speak and request “release” from contracts controlling their communication. That victims can be bound by NDAs compounds the abuses of power they have already experienced. To prevent further abuse, power must be taken from abusers.

The recent scandals involving Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, and Bill O’Reilly, as well as harassment scandals within academia, show that women at work and in search of career opportunities continue to experience discrimination and disenfranchisement.

We should ask why we expect victims to speak out when the pressure to stay silent is not only culturally conditioned, but can be contractually enforced.

Due to the difficulties of reaching settlement and bringing harassment cases to court, there are several arguments that NDAs help victims. First, victims of harassment may fear that knowledge of a settlement will harm future job prospects by marking them as litigious or troublemakers. Second, employers and harassers might be less inclined to negotiate or pay a settlement if they cannot obtain an NDA, a situation that could diminish victims’ bargaining power in recovering damages. Third, sexual harassment stigmatizes victims and having what a harasser did made public can be embarrassing and harmful to victims. These concerns are valid, yet they all speak to the skewed cultural context in which victims salvage careers and rebuild their lives. Stigma and professional repercussions reinforce rape logic, which I analyze elsewhere, by blaming and punishing victims for sexual violence committed against them.

NDAs are rarely in the victims’ interest because they shield the powerful and can be installed in perpetuity. Therefore, a concerted effort to resist NDAs is a crucial step in ending discrimination and unfair labor practices.

As the outpouring of harassment stories grows—including from female lawmakers in Congress—this watershed moment suggests that many victims want to speak and the public wants to know.

Secrecy is an ally of sexual violence. Victims speaking out is a necessary form of prevention because it exposes the pattern of abuse, warns others, and encourages people to come forward, including other victims and bystanders. Given the vast and varied costs of sexual violence to victims and employers, companies should not use NDAs in harassment settlements or in employee contracts to protect their reputations. Employers ought to incur reputational damage if they harbor harassers. Continuing to deploy NDAs allows sexual harassment to become a type of “trade secret” across professions, in academia as in Hollywood. In the wake of Weinstein, it is clear that contracting victims’ speech means sexual violence will never be settled.

 

Annie Hill is Assistant Professor in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota.

— Photo by Mihai Surdu




Union Organizing is a Gender Justice Issue

By Lane Windham
November 8, 2017

The Democratic Party released its Better Deal platform in June that included a call for a higher minimum wage, better jobs, and worker training.  Conspicuously absent, however, was any mention of unions. This was quite a stunning departure from the original New Deal that had unions and labor organizing at its very core.

Last week the Democrats finally released a new plank that focuses on labor law reform, under the banner of “Give Workers the Freedom to Negotiate a Better Deal.”  While no one expects the proposals to pass anytime soon, their inclusion signals that the Democrats may wrap workers’ freedom to organize into the 2019 platform.

Will the Democrats stick with labor law reform this time around?  For women workers’ sake, let’s hope so.

After all, workers’ right to freely form unions and bargain collectively is a gender justice issue; unions help women close the wage gap, rise out of poverty, and address power issues on the job.

As I show in my new book, Knocking on Labor’s Door, women made a broad-based push to join unions in the 1970s.  During that decade, a whopping 12 million more women entered the nation’s workplaces, many gaining new access to the nation’s jobs following the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  As they came into new workplaces, women of all backgrounds and men of color powered a fresh wave of union organizing in the nation’s workplaces, aiming to ensure that their new jobs were good jobs.  Finally, it seemed that they too would have full access to the New Deal’s full economic promise.

Employers, however, ramped up their resistance to union organizing, and began to bend and break the law at new levels.  The number of unfair labor practices, or instances of employer law breaking, doubled during the decade. The employer opposition was remarkably effective; while workers had won 80 percent of their union elections in the 1940s, by the late 1970s they were winning less than half.  That trend has continued today when 96 percent of employers fight workers’ efforts to unionize, according to research by Kate Bronfenbrenner at Cornell University; half threaten to close up shop if their employees unionize, and about a third fire union supporters.

Despite employer resistance, women did steadily increase their membership in unions.

In 1960, only 18 percent of union members were women. By 1984, that figure was 34 percent.  Today, women make up nearly half of union members, and are on track to be the majority of union members by 2025.  But employer opposition to new worker organizing undergirds labor unions’ dwindling membership levels.  Women today are a greater proportion of a smaller pool of union members.

Unions make a real difference for those women who manage to successfully organize.  Union women earn 13 percent more than women who do similar jobs without a union, are 37 percent more likely to have employer-provided health care, and are 54 percent more likely to have an employer-provided pension. That kind of economic difference can be a game changer when women hold two-thirds of the U.S.’s lowest-paying jobs.

A union gives women more power over their working conditions, such as schedules and hours; lots of working-class mothers, for example, cycle through a string of bad jobs with unpredictable schedules. Union women have an extra tool in their toolbox for dealing with a manager’s sexual harassment.

Women who work as janitors in California, for instance, often find themselves alone at night in empty buildings alongside male managers. The United Service Workers West recently won contract language and a law requiring cleaning and security employers to offer training on sexual harassment.

The Democrats’ belated collection of legislative fixes would help limit employers’ ability to squash workers’ union organizing efforts.  When employers force workers into mandatory meetings against the union, the Democrats’ new rules would have the election results thrown out.  Right now if employers break the law, there are no penalties; they just have to hang a blue and white sign saying they broke the law.  The new plank would impose real penalties that could give the law a bit more teeth.

The plank also anticipates that Congress could overturn the Obama-era joint employer standard, issued in the Browning-Ferris decision, that holds parent companies accountable for their sub-contractors’ behavior. The House passed legislation on November 7 that would overturn the joint standard, with support from eight Democrats. The legislation still needs to clear the Senate.

The Democrat’s new labor plank also anticipates a Supreme Court decision in Janus v. AFSCME that could cripple unions by ending “agency fees” covering representation costs in public sector union contracts nationwide; experts predict this case will be a watershed moment for the labor movement.

The Better Deal would ban so-called “right-to-work” laws altogether, and provide public sector workers with the same rights to collectively bargain as workers in the private sector.

When the 2019 debate heats up regarding the Democrats’ full plank, union organizing is likely to be viewed as a special interest issue impacting only labor unions.  In fact, workers’ right to form a union is one of the key working-class women’s issue of the twenty-first century, and a “Better Deal” that drops this issue is a very bad deal indeed for the nation’s working women.

 

— Lane Windham is Associate Director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Intiative for Labor and the Working Poor and co-director of WILL Empower (Women Innovating Labor Leadership).  Her new book, Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide, was released by UNC Press this Labor Day.

— Cover art from Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide

 




Who Didn’t Apply for DACA and Why it Matters

By Michele Statz
November 7, 2017

Even without attacks from the White House, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has already been restricted in many ways. This becomes immediately apparent when we consider how—and which—immigrant youth have been represented in relation to it. Amidst, or perhaps because of, limited engagement with Asian youth directly, immigrant advocacy on behalf of Chinese youth in particular has largely relied on presumptions of gendered and racialized vulnerability. Though not often considered, these (mis)representations matter, impacting youths’ trust in policy and further underscoring the contingent nature of DACA’s duration and success.

Neglected Numbers

Asian immigrants are more likely than the total immigrant population to have arrived in the U.S. since 2010. Likewise, they are more likely to be naturalized citizens. But while the majority of Asian immigrants arrive in the U.S. via authorized channels, they are also the fastest growing population of unauthorized immigrants. Between 2009 and 2013, approximately 1.5 million unauthorized immigrants from Asia resided in the U.S., representing 14 percent of the estimated 11 million unauthorized. As of 2016, India, China, and the Philippines were the primary sending countries of both of authorized and unauthorized immigrants—and also of lawful permanent residents—in the U.S.  to the U.S.

Despite these trends, Asian immigrants have had some of the lowest application rates to DACA. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 84% of eligible Mexican youth and 83% of eligible Salvadoran youth have sought protection, but only 16% of eligible Korean youth and 28% of eligible Filipino youth applied for DACA in 2016.

Significantly, the government reported no data for DACA applicants from China as of March 2017—the numbers were too small to report. This does not mean that there were no immediately eligible Chinese youth; after all, following Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, China sends the largest number of unauthorized immigrants to the U.S. In 2016, there were approximately 25,000 Chinese youth immediately eligible for DACA, but a year later, only 740 Chinese youth were active DACA holders.

It’s worth noting, particularly in light of the gendered depictions of unauthorized Chinese youth discussed below, that DACA applications have consistently split fairly evenly across genders (though applicants from Asia and Europe are more likely to be male).

Males represent slightly more of the unauthorized youth population in the U.S., considerably more of unaccompanied youth, and are 1.4 times more likely than females to have DACA applications denied.

There are diverse explanations for the low DACA application rates among young Chinese and Asian immigrants more broadly, including a reluctance to discuss legal status at the community level owing to shame and stigma; concerns over the impact of DACA on unauthorized family members; cost; limited linguistically- and regionally-accessible DACA educational and media coverage directed toward diverse Asian communities; lack of trust in political institutions, both in countries of origin and in the U.S.; and a history of discrimination against Asian populations, particularly via exclusion era immigration laws.

 

Eligible and Invisible

There are additional, though less considered, reasons for Asians’ low DACA application rates. As my own research evidences, how—and if—young migrants are depicted in media and policy proves profoundly consequential to youths’ engagement with the immigration system.

Critical activists and scholars necessarily highlight the prevalence of bounded, exclusive, and even fetishized constructions of an ideal and “deserving” Dreamer (i.e., a youth who would have been eligible for the DREAM Act and is or could be a DACA beneficiary), though these strategic framings (and their critiques) tend to center on Latinx youth. So, too, has much of the media coverage around the Trump administration’s recent rescission of DACA. There have been some exceptions, of course, but when media coverage has centered on DACA-mented Asian American youth, it has largely perpetuated the stereotype of the “deserving” immigrant.

The application of the model-minority trope to Asian youth is unsurprising, given the history of racialized constructions of immigrants and il/legality in U.S. political and public discourse.

Once the dominant public image of “the illegal immigrant,” Asian Americans are often now racially framed as “honorary whites.” A well-documented source of hostility and discrimination, the trope of the model minority powerfully contributes to the relative invisibility of Asian American youth in research, advocacy, policy, and public discourse around immigration.

 

“The Young Girl from China”

A corollary to the model minority/invisible Asian immigrant youth is the vulnerable and gendered Asian immigrant youth. Since 2010, I have been conducting research on public interest immigration advocacy on behalf of young Chinese migrants who have arrived alone and clandestinely to the U.S. and have been apprehended and placed in removal proceedings. This group of youth is socioeconomically, linguistically, and legislatively distinct from those eligible for DACA (though “unaccompanied” youth and their families have also been targeted by the Trump administration), yet discourses of deservingness exceed these differences, filtering and constraining the experiences and opportunities available to young Asian immigrants more generally.

Through rigorous analysis of immigrant advocacy organizations’ promotional materials and policy reports, my research demonstrates that the standardized and pseudonymous Chinese youth/client is almost unfailingly portrayed as a vulnerable young girl, a victim of her family and “Chinese Culture” writ large.

These depictions are a manifestation of the racialized hierarchy first instituted via Chinese exclusion laws, with stereotypes of Chinese parents as racially inferior and coercive put forth to underscore the vulnerability necessary for “deservingness” in the discretionary state, and likewise the appropriateness of legal professionals to “care” for youth.

Fei-Yen’s parents forbade her to attend school and made her work long hours. When she resisted a forced marriage, they beat her. She fled from China to the United States and applied for asylum.

Mei” is a young girl from China… Mei’s family is very poor. They told Mei that she could “help” to pay back the money by working off the debt in the U.S. In other words, it appears that Mei—a child with no skills and no English ability—was sent to the U.S. for forced labor… Mei’s case is now being handled by a well-respected law firm. And, her situation has improved considerably.

In many ways, these narratives underscore the vulnerability demanded by humanitarianism, in which the complex specificities of individuals are reconstituted as “pure victims in general.”

The gendered aspects of this framing also draw on what Jyoti Sanghera describes as “the dominant anti-trafficking discourse,” popular depictions of young Asian women as “compulsorily vulnerable and innocent.”

More broadly, these narratives preclude the visibility of relational, mobile, and agentive—let alone male or non-binary—Asian migrants. That such blatantly and impossibly narrow depictions are also relatively successful in eliciting support, sympathy, and funding also indicates that most advocates know little about the complex lives of Asian youth. (Notable exceptions are the Asian American Legal Defense Fund and nascent youth-led Asian and Pacific Islander organizations, though these are largely clustered on the east and west coasts). The profound consequence is that the transnational relationships, responsibilities, and expectations of young immigrants are either not seen or are powerfully misrepresented or diminished in public discourse. This leaves little hope for meaningful policy and advocacy and even less hope that young people will trust initiatives like DACA. How can legislation protect those it does not “see”?

 

— Michele Statz is an anthropologist of law and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus. Her new book, Lawyering an Uncertain Cause: Immigration Advocacy and Chinese Youth in the U.S. (Vanderbilt University Press), will be out in 2018.

— Image originally appeared in A Treacherous Journey