My sister got the hazel eyes, the cooler name — Amrita, which means nectar — and the American citizenship. I got the standard brown eyes and a name that literally means “line.” Amrita also got to vote and travel on a U.S. passport, which grants automatic entry to many countries. As an Indian citizen, I once had Spanish armed guards parked outside my hotel room all night, after a missed flight connection became an overnight stay in Madrid with no visa.
But that’s the way it works. All countries have their rules. Amrita just happened to come along when our Indian parents were posted in New York with the United Nations. They were temporarily in India when I showed up two years later. The 14th Amendment confers unconditional belonging on those born on American soil, even if their parents (and sister) don’t have it. That just makes sense.
But now the president wants to end that. Donald Trump hopes to issue an executive order discontinuing U.S.
The 14th Amendment came about to correct an 1857 Supreme Court ruling that unjustly denied citizenship rights to former slaves. As lawyers George T. Conway III and Neal Katyal eloquently put it in the Oct. 30 Washington Post, “Birthright citizenship sprang from the ashes of the worst Supreme Court decision in U.S. history, Dred Scott v. Sandford. The blood of hundreds of thousands of Americans was shed to repudiate that idea.”
As they wrote, “The drafters were motivated by their utter revulsion toward slavery and a system that relegated people to subordinate political status because of their birth.”
So Trump wants to draw the line, instead, on immigrants. “We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States for 85 years, with all of those benefits,” Trump said. “It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. And it has to end.”
He’s actually wrong. As The New York Times points out, at least 30 countries including Mexico confer birthright citizenship. And one of the lawyers who argues Trump can’t undo that right in America is married to Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway. That’s the George Conway quoted above. Kellyanne defends the president’s plan by saying constitutional scholars disagree.
Whether or not Trump can legally strip a population of citizenship rights, you have to ask why a president would want to, when citizenship can be a powerful tool for betterment. Trump hasn’t specified if he intends to try to strip citizenship from children already born here or deprive others of it going forward.
But what’s being missed in this debate is that when people have a legitimized voice and a vote, they are more likely to use them for the greater good. The saying, “With rights come responsibilities,” isn’t just a lecture parents give kids about being home on time. It’s a badge of honor worn by many of us who were naturalized or first-generation Americans, a drive to make long-term investments in this homeland.
Sadly, Trump is more interested in keeping political power away from those he has demonized than empowering them. His administration also wants to deny green cards to any immigrants using any public assistance. So much for Emma Lazarus’ invitation to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses ... “
The president knows his rhetoric and actions against Mexicans, Muslims, African-Americans and other minority populations could come back to haunt him as the electorate grows more diverse. A new report by the New American Economy, a nonpartisan organization that supports immigration reform, predicts a decline in white voters in 44 of 45 competitive districts in next week’s elections compared to 2016. Conversely, the Hispanic vote will have increased in all but eight of those districts, the study predicts.
A “racialized dimension” to birthright citizenship has developed in this century in reaction to the presence of Latino immigrants, claims the author of “Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America.” History Professor Martha S. Jones of Johns Hopkins University told the Times, “It runs disturbingly counter to what the 14th Amendment gave us, which was a route to citizenship that could not be denied by virtue of race, by virtue of descent, religion, political party, health, wealth.”
The Naturalization Act of 1790 made only white people eligible to become citizens. America’s first inhabitants, the Native Americans, weren’t even granted citizenship until 1924.
Citizenship isn’t a prize to be bestowed on children of the highest bidders, the whitest-skinned or those most likely to vote a certain way. It’s a fundamental right of birth that carries civic responsibilities in exchange for an absolute sense of belonging.