My great-grandfather was born in Europe. He met and married my great-grandmother there and a few years later moved to the USA. Over time, they raised a family. They were poor by most standards, but they worked hard — my great-grandfather was a cobbler and his bride was a seamstress — and they were good members of their community.Their children were born here… in the United States… and were each given a priceless gift at birth: citizenship. Because she was born within the borders of this nation, my grandmother instantly became a citizen, something that could never be taken away.
Or could it?
There is a growing movement in certain political circles aimed at ending the practice of birthright citizenship. It’s a hot topic on the presidential campaign trail, and the opinions on both sides are strong, even if the arguments are a bit weak.
The Fourteenth Amendment officially became part of the Constitution in 1868 and since then its opening sentence became the standard for recognizing who is, actually, an American. The amendment’s Citizenship Clause states:
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
There it is, plain and simple. If you were born here, you belong here. You’re one of us. (Of course, there are a few exceptions, such as children born to foreign diplomats.) But not everyone is happy about that.
Growing out of the long-running debate over immigration reform, the question of whether to continue the practice of birthright citizenship has taken its place as one of the key discussion topics in the current race for the White House. Candidates, commentators, and coffee klatchers are arguing, sometimes fiercely, about whether a baby should have such a right.
Naturally, those in favor of changing the status quo are quick to point to undocumented immigrants — the so-called “illegal aliens” — and calling for rejection of automatic citizenship for their children. Those who seek to preserve the 14th Amendment as is are just as forceful in arguing that its language was carefully selected to assure that all born here are given equal treatment despite the origins of their parents. After all, some of the first to benefit from the amendment were former slaves who previously had no legal claim to citizenship.
You can be sure that those on the side calling for change would claim that they are only concerned with the undocumented, that they would have no problem with granting citizenship to the children of immigrants who are here with legal documentation. But I have to wonder if it would stop there. Given the power to strip away birthright citizenship from one group, how could we stop the government from ruling that others are also not worthy? Couldn’t such authority lead to refusal of citizenship to people of a certain race or religion?
Couldn’t we see a government that would make such a change retroactive, thus revoking citizenship… and all of its privileges including the ability to vote… from existing citizens? It sure would be an effective means of shutting down your critics, wouldn’t it?
What makes me even more suspicious of the intentions of those pushing this movement is that we aren’t hearing anyone complaining about babies born of parents from places like, say, Norway or Italy or Canada. No, the argument is firmly centered on the children of immigrants who cross our southern border.
What’s further troubling is that the argument is coming from the political right, whose party is sorely lacking in support from the Latino community. Such an unbending stance against citizenship at birth… especially one that is clearly aimed at people who come to the USA from Mexico and other nations to our south… is certainly not helping the Republican Party in its efforts to include people of color under its tent.
That is, if the GOP is still making the effort.
I just read a report projecting the 2016 election turnout broken down by race and its results aren’t enthusiastic for a party that alienates non-white voters. In fact, a party that turns its back on people of color will find that it is virtually impossible to win on the national stage.
I’m not a political consultant, but if someone came to me and asked what I thought would be a good strategy, I’d suggest that being a party of ideas and goals makes more sense than building your platform on exclusion and turning back time.
(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald September 3, 2015.)