Save the 14th Amendment

BY Advocate Contributors

August 13 2010 3:15 PM ET

COMMENTARY: Don’t know much about history, do they? 

That’s a sad statement to make about the U.S. Congress, but evidently a true one, given the recent pile-on of Republican senators calling for repeal — or “investigation” — of birthright citizenship. Senate majority leader Harry Reid noted that his colleagues have “either taken leave of their senses or their principles.”

In fact, they may have taken leave of both, as their ridiculous, racist campaign betrays a basic misunderstanding of American history and of the Constitution.

First, a quick history lesson: Before the Civil War, there was no definition of American citizenship. Slaves were not citizens, and women’s citizenship was tenuous at best. A woman who married a foreign national could be stripped of her citizenship, and of course, women, slaves, and most nonwhites could not vote. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the U.S. Constitution, as originally ratified, defined who was an American citizen or how to become one. The Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision — which brought pre-Civil War tensions closer to a boil by holding that Congress could not prohibit slavery in federal territory — reaffirmed that “Negroes” were not and could not be citizens.

For slaves, the needed result of the Civil War was not just freedom from bondage but entry into the social contract. Freedom without citizenship was an empty promise, and thus 2-1/2 years after the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery, Congress ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Fourteenth Amendment was the centerpiece of Reconstruction, and it finally provided the United States with a definition of who exactly was a citizen. Its very first words read: “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.”

Reread that sentence and ask yourself, Without it, who would be an American? Would I? On what basis? In a nation where 98% of us are here as the result of immigration at some point in time, who among us has been here “long enough”? Who gets to decide?

The spectacle of our country’s leaders calling for a repeal of birthright citizenship is despicable, disappointing, and thoroughly predictable. For too many of our politicians, history and context are irrelevant; all that matters is the next election.

Of course, the people being targeted by this rhetoric are undocumented immigrant workers, the majority of whom are Latino. These millions of workers keep American agriculture, construction, and service industries afloat. They often earn below the minimum wage and are too intimidated to demand the safety rules and labor protections to which they are legally entitled. The echoes of slavery are loud: People of color working for next to nothing, without legal standing or any current hope of ever gaining it, whose toil supports the “American way of life” — today not cotton but cheap food, overbuilt housing, and disposable consumer goods. To complete the disenfranchisement of undocumented workers by denying their children the very rights for which we fought the Civil War would be the perfect irony.

LGBT people should find this particularly disgusting. At Immigration Equality, we hear every day from people who face double discrimination: because they are immigrants and simultaneously because they are also lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Those dual lines of attack are no coincidence: The very same people who are leading the charge to strip citizenship from the children of immigrants are those who have long led the charge to strip the rights of full citizenship from LGBT people. On the latter front, their crusades are beginning to falter, with historic judicial and legislative victories affirming the rights of LGBT people. Sadly, politicians desperate for a scapegoat in an era of recession and war are attacking not only the newest citizens, they are attacking our precious Constitution.

The Fourteenth Amendment is a cornerstone of our liberty — it is precisely what makes us who we are, and without it we would not know ourselves as Americans.

Rachel B. Tiven is executive director of Immigration Equality and the Immigration Equality Action Fund. This article is the opinion of the writer and not The Advocate. 

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