An American birthright

By Michelle Chen May 27, 2009

Nativist zealots may finally be coming around to the realization that they cannot stop immigrants from becoming a permanent part of the country’s social fabric. That must be why Nathan Deal has dreamed up another plan to keep foreigners out of America… by changing the definition of “American.” The Associated Press reports:

U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, a Republican candidate for governor of Georgia, has proposed changing the long-standing federal policy that automatically grants citizenship to any baby born on U.S. soil, a move opposed by immigrant rights advocates. Supporters of Deal’s proposal say “birthright citizenship” encourages illegal immigration and makes enforcement of immigration laws more difficult. Opponents say the proposed law wouldn’t solve the illegal immigration problem and goes against this country’s traditions of welcoming immigrants.

And that whole constitution thing? Not to worry:

Deal and his supporters say the 14th Amendment wording was never meant to automatically give citizenship to babies born to illegal immigrants…. Under Deal’s proposal, babies born in the U.S. would automatically have citizenship only if at least one of their parents is a U.S. citizen or national, a legal permanent resident of the U.S., or actively serving in the U.S. military.

Citizenship by blood. Funny how some ideas tend to go in and out of vogue with the cycles of history. Though it will probably have little political traction in his party, Deal’s strategy (similar to past proposals) stems from a rich tradition of exclusion. A quick lesson in American legal history from Elizabeth Wydra of the Constitutional Accountability Center:

Since its ratification in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment has guaranteed that “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.” Just a decade before this language was added to our Constitution, the Supreme Court held in Dred Scott that persons of African descent could not be citizens under the Constitution. Our nation fought a war at least in part to repudiate the terrible error of Dred Scott and to secure, in the Constitution, citizenship for all persons born on U.S. soil, regardless of race, color, or ancestry. Against the backdrop of prejudice against newly freed slaves and various immigrant communities such as the Chinese and Gypsies, the Reconstruction Framers recognized that the promise of equality and liberty in the original Constitution needed to be permanently established for people of all colors; accordingly, the Reconstruction Framers chose to constitutionalize the conditions sufficient for automatic citizenship. Fixing the conditions of birthright citizenship in the Constitution—rather than leaving them up to constant revision or debate—befits the inherent dignity of citizenship, which should not be granted according to the politics or prejudices of the day…. A close study of the text of the Citizenship Clause and Reconstruction history demonstrates that the Citizenship clause provides birthright citizenship to all those born on U.S. soil, regardless of the immigration status of their parents. Perhaps more importantly, the principles motivating the Framers of the Reconstruction Amendments, of which the Citizenship Clause is a part, suggest that we amend the Constitution to reject automatic citizenship at the peril of our core constitutional values.

How far has our democracy evolved since the era of Dred Scott? Deal’s proposal is a disturbing testament to how the politics and prejudices of yesteryear have survived to the present day. Image: KOCE-TV