Paul Greenberg

One of the uncounted, indeed oft intangible, ways in which the United States of America is an exceptional country is that here citizenship is not a matter of race, creed, color or national descent. Nor of blood-and-iron or whatever barriers other nations may erect to protect their Kultur or further their mission civilisatrice. Ours is a different, more open and embracing bond, to wit:

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. --Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Got any questions? A number of congressmen do. They're lining up behind a constitutionally dubious proposal to restrict the birthright of American citizenship to children of American citizens. After all these years we're now supposed to ignore the plain meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, or at least the meaning generations of Americans have held to.

In place of the amendment's unambiguous words, we are to substitute a load of lawyerspeak that would put up a wall between Americans. A wall that has never before been recognized by the weight of American case law or, far more enduring, the all-embracing American spirit.

That frontier spirit has always asked not where you came from but where you are going, not who your ancestors were but how your children can achieve their fondest dreams. Here we are more interested in the future people will build than the poverty and privations they may have come here to escape from, whether Puritan or peon. For here we are all Americans. And look each other in the eye. Like equals before the law and our God. Like citizens of a Republic.

But to hear these congressmen tell it, only certain persons born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens. That is the essence of their proposal, which typifies what has become an ugly, angry trend in the national discourse. It is particularly sad when Republican congressmen choose to join this herd. For the Fourteenth Amendment was the product of a Republican president and a Republican Congress. But that seems to mean little to these Republicans. Maybe they think all that is "mere" history. For they are as unconnected to the proud legacy of their party as they are to the plain meaning of words. Or at least to what the plain words of the Fourteenth Amendment used to mean.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.