How to Deny a Birthright

Paul Greenberg

2/21/2011 5:47:21 PM - 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.

This unsavory proposal to change long-established immigration law isn't likely to go anywhere even if it gets somewhere. That is, even if it somehow manages to get through Congress, or survives a presidential veto, it's not likely to pass constitutional muster before the Supreme Court of the United States. It's purely a symbolic gesture aimed to appease the kind of voters who are so angry and disgusted with the country's broken immigration system that they're ready to do anything except fix it -- by supporting comprehensive reform, which is the only realistic policy that will put this whole mess behind us.

It happens every time another great wave of immigration hits this country. It sets off a counter-wave of reaction among those of us descended from an earlier wave. Each successive tide of immigrants -- whether German in colonial America or Mexican today, and all the great migrations in between -- have been seen as threats to our Kultur, unworthy of citizenship or maybe even incapable of it. (See the Chinese Exclusion Act.)

The hateful spirit of the Dred Scott decision, which solemnly declared that not all Americans are created equal after all, rises up once again, like some monstrous bottom-feeder that has been waiting for just such an opportunity to rear up and rip us apart. And make some of us only second-class Americans, or maybe not Americans at all. And it would affect not just the children of illegal immigrants but their children's children and their children's children, and so forever on. Till we become one nation divisible.

This attempt to deny newborn Americans citizenship is a particularly ugly aspect of this familiar reaction. To some, these newborns go by just as ugly names: "anchor babies," or products of "birth tourism." But they have a shorter, simpler name: Americans. And they acquire it as soon as they are born on American soil.

Me, I wouldn't disown a single one of them, black or white or brown or any other color, able or disabled, whether squalling in their cribs or, soon enough, bright-eyed and hopeful and headed for school. Each of them becomes part of the American body and soul, of the American history yet to be made. And they'll be part of it from before birth to after death.

Let no one doubt that any of those who now lie buried under U.S. grave markers in military cemeteries abroad, from Normandy to some Pacific Island, whatever their surnames or provenance, are Americans in every way. They don't need any papers now. They are Americans by courage. These politicians scurrying to deny a new generation of Americans their birthright would do better to show some courage of their own.