In the latest development in what is starting to feel like a trip “through the looking glass” to some bizarre version of the legal world as I understood it in law school, actual, important politicians have raised the spectre of repealing or amending or re-interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment, specifically, its provision that “[a]ll 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.” It seems especially sad that those who want to abolish or change the long-standing, post-Civil-War principle of birthright citizenship in the United States are, mainly, Republicans: one might call the Fourteenth Amendment “one of the [Republican] party’s greatest feats,” as did the Economist in the article linked above. In any event, the Economist article does a pretty fair job, I think, of discussing the various perspectives on the issue (including pointing out that the so-called “anchor baby” idea is almost completely a fallacy, since a child cannot petition to make his parent a citizen until after the child is 21).
If you read this blog regularly, you will not be surprised to learn that abolishing birthright American citizenship seems like a terrible idea to me. One more sally in the current assault against immigrants, against the “other,” along with the police checkpoints for schoolchildren walking to school near the border, the Arizona law, the “deportation madness,” and the opposition to building mosques. What’s more, it would be a terrible development for our society, a recipe to increase crime and instability, by enlarging and making permanent the underground world of people who reside here, even were born here, but are afraid to interact with the legitimate authorities and institutions of our society.
One of the more interesting blog posts about the Fourteenth Amendment controversy was posted by three law professors (Paul Finkelman, James Anaya, and Gabriel Chin) at the Huffington Post a couple of days ago. They offer strong, well-supported historical, legal, and political arguments against the proposal. But what’s most striking is their personal appeal–each of these professors is himself the grandchild of undocumented immigrants. They write,
We are struck by what the absence of birth citizenship might have meant for our parents and us, and what it might mean for others in the future. Looming is the caste problem — if the children of undocumented immigrants are not citizens, then perhaps their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are not citizens either.
This admission is a rather dramatic rhetorical move, coming from law professors in the United States. We lawyers are trained to do just the opposite, for the most part — to craft powerful legal arguments that give the audience an image of the worst consequences of the law we oppose, while avoiding any personal or individual connection to those consequences. So the post is interesting from a rhetorical point of view. The historical and legal argument is strong too, though:
In the past, America has come to regret policies denying citizenship to particular groups, policies like Dred Scott, and the racial tests for naturalized citizenship in force from 1790 to 1952. These policies always rested on the idea that some immigrants — almost always non-white — would not make good citizens. Doubt about the ability of the United States to take in and benefit from every branch of the human family has always been proved wrong, and, we have no doubt, will be here as well.
I came upon another post in the same vein this week, a video on youtube, actually an 1947 U.S. War Department-produced video called “Don’t Be a Sucker” (you can see the original in the internet archive). The youtube poster has tacked the image of a waving American flag and an admonition to “Never Forget We Are Nothing Without Equality” at the end of the War Department PSA, an addition that actually fits fairly well with the video’s heavy-handed tone.
*The terrific Deportation Madness art accompanying this post is used by permission of the artist Dmitri Jackson and the Texas Observer, where it accompanied an article with the same title, written by Melissa Delbosque.