By Prem Calvin Prashad
Recently, the 2016 presidential campaign reached new levels of absurdity, with several Republican candidates demanding that the children of immigrants not receive American citizenship by birth. Birthright citizenship, enshrined in the Constitution by way of the Fourteenth Amendment and judicial interpretation, has been the law of the land since 1868 and one of the earliest significant achievements by the early Republican Party.
The weight of history and tradition, in normal times, should render birthright citizenship inalienable. Indeed, every major country in the Americas, aside from Colombia, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, has unconditional birthright citizenship. Today, the world watches in disgust as the Dominican Republic, a nation lacking this right, rounds up dark-skinned Dominicans suspected of Haitian roots for deportation to Haiti. Whether doing the same in the United States is even logistically possible, it is an ethical and moral quandary with an obvious answer.
Such an absurd “solution” is a cynical and chauvinist argument that in essence, demands we rethink one of the most basic tenants of this nation’s existence in the name of a vastly overstated “threat.”
The citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is written in clear, unambiguous language: “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.”
Written before America had gained overseas possessions, or had seen large, nonwhite migrations or even affirmed universal suffrage for women and minorities, the authors of the amendment (all Republicans) were clear in both their intent and framing of citizenship in the United States.
Since its passage, citizenship rights of African Americans, native Americans and eventually Asian Americans were guaranteed by way of legal precedent and legislation. Specifically, in United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), the Supreme Court ruled that a Chinese-American man, born to Chinese immigrants in California, was unconditionally a citizen.
Critics of birthright citizenship have derided the children of immigrants as “anchor babies,” or children born solely for cementing the families’ status in the United States. This is patently ridiculous, as a child must be 21 years old to sponsor their parents.
Note, of course, that the citizenship of Hispanic persons is never in question during that debate, likely because just decades earlier, the United States had forcibly seized California and much of the Southwest from Mexico and even then, could not fathom forcibly repatriating the people already living there.
Furthermore, the claims that undocumented immigrants can collect Social Security or other benefits have been debunked many times. So-called birth tourism, the phenomenon of wealthy foreigners giving birth in U.S. hospitals, is a laughably small occurrence, with the Center for Health Care Statistics estimating 7,462 such births in 2008.
Despite the rhetoric, the reality is that people emigrate, whether legally or otherwise, for work, not citizenship. This is why illegal immigration from Mexico peaked in 2007, before falling off when jobs became scarce during the recession.
The United States has always prided itself on being a nation of immigrants and one that offers refuge to people who have fled war, famine and other hardship. It is in the spirit of this virtue that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment pushed to include this in the Constitution, to protect it from the actions of a future Congress, or confuse presidential candidates. This is perhaps why it’s disappointing that the presidential candidate who hails from Queens has led the racialized rhetoric against Asian and Hispanic immigrants.
It remains to be seen if the Republican party can still call itself the “Party of Lincoln,” while demanding the abolishment of the key policy achievement that he and his fellow Republicans had defended, even demanded, that Southern states affirm before being allowed to rejoin the United States.