Birthright Citizenship and the Modern Day Know Nothings

The idea that the Senate should hold hearings to discuss the merits of the Fourteenth Amendment goes a step farther than even the most virulent anti-immigration crusades of the past.
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Initially, I dismissed most of GOP leaders' anti immigration rhetoric as sheer demagoguery and political opportunism. Particularly for senators who hail from states with a significant Latino vote, immigrant-baiting seems politically unwise. Couple that with the GOP's pro-business agenda (which supports comprehensive immigration reform) and coming demographic shifts in the American electorate, and it seems clear the GOP has far more to lose than to gain by engaging in ugly nativist posturing.
So it is with alarm that I watch respected Republican senators calling for a repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment, which grants birthright citizenship to all babies born in the United States.

Those GOP senators who openly support a challenge to the amendment -- among them Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham and John Kyl -- hearken back to the days of the Know Nothing Party, when anti-German and anti-Irish sentiment were ginned up to win votes. If you've never heard of the Know Nothing Party, that tells you something about the success of this fear-mongering approach to American politics.

Often, those defending the rights of the undocumented will point out that the United States is a nation of immigrants. This is true. What is also true is that, throughout the course of our history, most ethnic groups fell victim to the same shameful bigotry being employed today by anti-immigrant activists and mainstream GOP leaders. From the nativist riots and Chinese Exclusion Act of the 19th century, to the Gentlemen's Agreement and quota acts of the early 20th century, anyone of Irish, German, Italian, Eastern European or Asian descent can easily trace and document both popular and institutional rejection and marginalization of one's forebears.

Today, anti-immigrant sentiment is focused mainly on the Latino population (even though 40% of undocumented immigrants actually enter the U.S. legally via student or travel visas). But this latest salvo in the immigration debate, the idea that the Senate should hold hearings to discuss the merits of the Fourteenth Amendment -- the very amendment, mind you, that granted citizenship status to freed slaves -- goes a step farther than even the most virulent anti-immigration crusades of the past.

Certain members of the GOP now seek to deny U.S. citizenship to the children of undocumented -- "anchor babies," as they so lovingly refer to them -- in order to discourage non-citizens from "dropping and leaving" their children in the U.S. in hopes of one day using those children to gain legal status. This strikes me as particularly ironic: the "Party of Life" is now contemplating making the very act of being born into some manner of criminal offense, punishable by denial of citizenship.

As a public teacher in Los Angeles, I had the privilege of teaching many of these "anchor babies," along with a fair number of undocumented students. Many were from Latin America, but not all. I could spend hours extolling their virtues, and enumerating the contributions they will eventually make to our country. I could argue passionately about the inherent unfairness of being forced to live on the margins of American society because your parents secreted you across a border before you were conscious of laws that would restrict such movements.

But I won't. Such arguments serve only to fortify those already in favor of immigration reform, and are met with derision by those who don't.

What I will say is that I taught Advanced Placement U.S. Government to one particularly gifted group of these students. A majority of them passed the exam - many with exceptional scores - and therefore know more about U.S. history and the principles established in the Constitution than the average American. On most days, this would fill me with pride. But today, it fills me with sadness. Because I know my students will understand, upon hearing arguments about repealing parts of the Fourteenth Amendment, that such proposals are directed against them. And, though they believe themselves to be as American as any baby "born or naturalized" in the United States, these children of immigrants will see that scoring cheap political points in an election year means more to members of Congress than does fairness, human dignity or the fulfillment of the American promise of equality and opportunity.

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