Skin Deep: Biometrics and Containment in Sabrina Vourvoulias’s INK

Salvador Herrera // On October 22nd, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice proposed a rule titled “DNA-Sample Collection From Immigration Detainees.”[1] The rule would remove one Obama-era exception in the Code of Federal Regulations to the DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005: an exception that dismisses DNA collection as a requirement if institutional funds are limited.[2] Genetic information is collected and fed into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a database touted as “a tool for linking violent crimes” whenever “biological evidence is recovered from the crime scene.”[3] When applied to border subjects, these biometrics shore up containment measures and mark undocumented migrants as potential repeat offenders, a foreclosing of their futures that serves the ends of biopolitical control. Under the rule of the Department of Justice, the use of biometrics marks racialized bodies as the scene of the crime from which government agencies can lawfully harvest genetic material.[4]

In the 21st century, race runs more than skin deep. Towards the end of her 2014 monograph, gender, performance, and ethnic studies scholar Rachel Lee identifies several changes in the landscape of racial thinking during our “(epi-) genomic age.”[5] While epidermal notions of race persist, “microscopically coded (genomic) markers” penetrate deeper to allow for multiscalar means of human differentiation under new regimes of science.[6] This shift in scale, along with “the turn to biometrics” in South Africa, identified by film, television, and journalism scholar Jane Duncan, marks a technological upgrade in surveillance states across the globe that enforce draconian processes of “social sorting.”[7] What we are dealing with is the use of technological devices and methods of empirical data collection to not only define criminality but to stand in for and lend credence to racial logics: the differentiation of humans through the valuation of biological characteristics at smaller and smaller scales of measurement.

But what happens when this inner “truth” of race at the genomic level is reinscribed on the skin’s surface by governmental agencies? How do we respond when these markings racialize migrant bodies as pathogenic to justify their containment? Such is the speculative imaginary of Sabrina Vourvoulias’s Ink (2014). In the not-so-distance future, an “identity law” is passed to differentiate temporary workers (black), permanent residents (green), and non-white citizens (blue)—collectively known as “inks”—from those with full European ancestry using color-coded, biometric tattoos.[8] Even though inks get faux tattoos to fly under the radar, while others are simply white-passing and use “instaskin” to cover their tattoos and evade systems of control, the requirement of non-whites to make their citizenship status visible represents an explicit exercise of the racial logics of biopower.[9]

False narratives from health officials propagate the idea that inks carry disease.[10] These narratives are deployed to round them up, tear their families apart, sell their children off in private adoptions, and force sterilize men and women alike.[11] This mode of racialization points to a pathogenic, microscopic threat below the skin’s surface to generate fear. Sanitariums are opened across the country to detain and monitor “shipment[s]” of inks suspected of harboring diseases, including “Chagas…and Hansen’s.”[12] At these “inkatoriums”—medical facilities turned detention centers—global positioning system (GPS) chips are embedded in the necks of every ink.[13] Inks are then led to a “mandatory shower” and their clothing incinerated.[14] The burning of their clothes mirrors the actions of a militant White supremacist group, “Cleanse America.”[15] The group kidnaps inks and dumps them on the other side of the US-Mexico border, and later lights “emergent neighborhoods that still rent to inks” on fire.[16]

If these events sound familiar—either through hyperboles of the present or indices of history that I track in my endnotes—they should. Through the narration of a racialized regime of health and its biometric means of demarcation and containment, Ink is a work that “remind[s] us that we cannot imagine our collective futures without reckoning with the hoary ghosts of colonialism and modernity that continue to exert force through globalization and neoliberal capitalism.”[17] In a 2018 interview, Vourvoulias describes her writing process as taking “existing U.S. immigration policies and/or sentiments, and push[ing] them to what [she] believed were extremes to create a dystopia.”[18] On top of this speculative projection forward, the author “looked to U.S. history to see that moment when our own government decided to turn citizens into non-citizens on the basis of ethnicity and perceived ‘foreignness.’”[19]

While Vourvoulias’s speculative imaginary marks a temporal rupture in narratives of progress, her reconceptualization of race allows readers to explore alternative modes of relation. The novel is narrated from the perspective of men and women of multiple ethnicities and relationships to the state whom all share the desire to help inks. An understanding of race as kinship emerges when Abbie, a young white computer programmer whose mother works in an inkatorium, learns she is pregnant. “Stay in Smithville,” she implores Neto, a cousin of her recently deceased lover, “Help me raise him to be a Gavilán. Be his uncle. Or second cousin. Or whatever the actual blood relationship is.”[20] He responds with a simple affirmation of decolonial love: “Family is family.” Here, Neto rejects the genetic paternity and specificity afforded to “blood,” and therefore to race, so that he might stand in as father to a multi-ethnic child.

Vourvoulias also stakes out interventions in coalitional resistance, allowing readers to imagine alternative modes of political rebellion. Individuals citizens hide inks in their attics from “civil patrols”: deputized agents who interrogate households not unlike the Nazi Gestapo agents of WWII.[21] Additionally, a group called the “FedEx brigade” organizes a protest at Hastings City Hall, where thousands of participants carry the “faces” of “the disappeared” on “placards.” [22] All-in-all, Vourvoulias’s work stands as a humanistic intervention into medicalizing discourses of race that are used to justify the tracking, containment, and biometric marking of border subjects. The lessons in Ink are not merely speculative forewarnings. The novel contains insights that must be put into action to combat the effects of biometrics and containment in the present.

Acknowledgements: to my mother, for bringing an article on DNA collection at the border under the Trump administration to my attention, and to Arden Hegele for her generous support in the editing process.

Endnotes

[1] See Barr.

[2] See 28 CFR 28.12(b)(4) by the United States Government Publishing Office. The 2005 Fingerprint Act [S.1606] “authorize[d] [the] collection of DNA samples from persons arrested or detained under Federal authority,” effectively tying criminality to biometric markers in the search for methods of identification (Kyl).

[3] See Federal Bureau of Investigation.

[4] This bodies are racialized insofar as race is read into DNA and other genetic material. Genetic material is thoroughly racialized by 23andMe-type enterprises, which imagined DNA as a biological script containing family histories that allows for the creation of personalized narratives from the logic embedded in the human body.

[5] See Lee 213.

[6] Ibid. 210.

[7 Biometrics is “the measurement and analysis of unique physical characteristics for the purposes of identification,” with the understanding that these “characteristics” represent “a person’s unalterable features (Duncan 168).

[8] See Vourvoulias 1–5, 36. These tattoos function much like Quick Response (QR) codes that are linked to one’s personal information in official databases. The persistence of old forms of racism, as facilitated by these developing technologies, breaks up an easy and simple teleology of progress and social equality. This point is articulated in Simone Browne’s much needed injection of the study of blackness and the transatlantic archive in surveillance studies. Her monograph, Dark Matters, includes readings of slave branding as distinct from but not unrelated to the neoliberal marketing and “branding” of popular black icons (89–129).

[9] See Vourvoulias 55. Tattoos that are tied to one’s state sanctioned identity function far beyond the utilitarian needs of governmental identification. Here, what is “known” about the “biological” difference of migrant bodies—namely, their potential for criminality—is inscribed on their skin to make them legible in the eyes of surveillance societies, a locus where white skin would otherwise speak for itself.

[10] Ibid 73.

[11 Ibid 76, 84. In the late-20th century, a third of Puerto Rican women were sterilized through government-sponsored programs in Puerto Rico and U.S. cities such as New York, often without their knowledge or consent (Bernard-Carreño 65). Two hundred similar cases at the “Los Angeles County-University of Southern California (USC) Hospital” involved black and Chicana women who “were coerced into postpartum tubal ligations” (Stern, “Sterilization” 218). Today, amidst a crisis at the U.S. border involving the separation of families and their containment in detention centers, there are “holes in the [U.S. legal] system that allow state court judges to grant custody of migrant children to American families — without notifying their parents” (Burke and Mendoza). Altogether, these historical cases trace a movement away from the violent denial of biological fertility via medical malpractice, to the covert adoption of undocumented youth as a rupturing of familial bonds.

[12] See Vourvoulias 69. Similarly, in late-19th to early-20th century Los Angeles, the “typhus scare” among Mexican railroad workers coincided with racializing discourses that “changed border policies” (Molina 69–71).

[13] See Vourvoulias 71.

[14] Ibid 72. During the first few decades of the early-20th century, Mexican laborers at the US-Mexico border were made to pass through “disinfecting plants,” “bathhouses” where they were routinely “deloused” through “showers, steaming, vaccinations, and scrutiny per policy enacted by U.S. Surgeon Generals (Stern, “Buildings, Boundaries, and Blood” 45, 72).

[15] See Vourvoulias 26.

[16] Ibid 92.

[17] See Merla-Watson and Olguín 4.

[18] See Wise.

[19] Ibid.

[20] See Vourvoulias 165.

[21] Ibid. 101–03.

[22] Ibid. 168. These images refuse to let human beings get reduced to “data bodies”: the information “connected to an individual[s]” virtual body by corporations and the carceral state (World-Information.Org).

Works Cited

Barr, William. DNA-Sample Collection From Immigration Detainees. 22 Oct. 2019, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/10/22/2019-22877/dna-sample-collection-from-immigration-detainees.

Bernard-Carreño, Regina. “Puertoricans in New York.” Counterpoints, vol. 366, 2010, pp. 61–75. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42981349.

Browne, Simone. Dark Matters: On The Surveillance of Blackness. Duke University Press, 2015.

Burke, Garance, and Martha Mendoza. “AP Investigation: Deported Parents May Lose Kids to Adoption.” AP NEWS, 9 Oct. 2018, https://apnews.com/97b06cede0c149c492bf25a48cb6c26f.

Duncan, Jane. “Privacy, Surveillance and Population Management: The Turn to Biometrics.” Stopping the Spies, Wits University Press, 2018, pp. 165–84. JSTOR, JSTOR, doi:10.18772/12018062156.14.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).” FBI Laboratory Services, https://www.fbi.gov/services/laboratory/biometric-analysis/codis.

Kyl, Jon. S.1606 – 109th Congress (2005-2006): DNA Fingerprint Act of 2005. 29 July 2005, https://www.congress.gov/bill/109th-congress/senate-bill/1606/text.

Lee, Rachel C. The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Biopolitics, Biosociality, and Posthuman Ecologies. New York University Press, 2014.

Merla-Watson, Cathryn Josefina, and B. V. Olguín, editors. Altermundos: Latina Speculative Literature, Film, and Popular Culture. UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2017.

Molina, Natalia. Fit to Be Citizens?: Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939. University of California Press, 2006.

Stern, Alexandra Minna. “Buildings, Boundaries, and Blood: Medicalization and Nation-Building on the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1910-1930.” The Hispanic American Historical Review, vol. 79, no. 1, 1999, pp. 41–81. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2518217.

—. “Sterilization.” Keywords for Latina/o Studies, edited by Deborah R. Vargas et al., NYU Press, 2017, pp. 217–20.

United States Government Publishing Office. “Section § 28.12 – Collection of DNA Samples.” Code of Federal Regulations, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CFR-2019-title28-vol1/xml/CFR-2019-title28-vol1-sec28-12.xml. Accessed 24 Nov. 2019.

Vourvoulias, Sabrina. Ink. Crossed Genres Publications, 2012.

Wise, A. C. “An Interview with Sabrina Vourvoulias.” A.C. Wise, 26 Sept. 2018, http://www.acwise.net/?p=2838.

World-Information.Org. “Virtual Body and Data Body.” World Information Institute: Documentation Center for Digital Culture Technologies, http://world-information.org/wio/infostructure/100437611761/100438659695.

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