What does it mean to be a citizen? As the immigration debate heated up this summer, some Republican lawmakers proposed denying babies born of undocumented parents their birthright citizenship, a dangerous idea considering what it could mean for the civil liberties of all Americans.
The 14th Amendment to the Constitution states “All persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
It’s part of a series of amendments with a focus on civil rights passed during Reconstruction after America’s bloody Civil War. Written to try and move the nation past a dark age in civil liberties highlighted by 1857’s Dred Scott decision denying citizenship to African Americans, the 14th Amendment guarantees citizenship to any person born on U.S. soil. Today’s debate concerns these same fundamental issues — this time regarding the children of immigrants.
A study released this summer by the Pew Hispanic Center found that eight percent of babies born in the U.S. had at least one parent who was an undocumented immigrant at their time of birth. The debate gets heated when you consider the enormous numbers of people we are talking about.
There a reported 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S., and the debate on how to best handle the situation of current and future immigrants has gone nowhere since President Barack Obama took office. But the question at the heart of birthright citizenship is whether children should be punished for the supposed crimes of their parents.
Some lawmakers believe that these children are a result of an illegal act and can thus claim no membership to this nation. Others believe in a vast immigrant conspiracy of mothers crossing the border to have “anchor babies” so that 20 years later they may claim their parents as citizens.
I firmly believe that your citizenship status has little to no bearing on your membership in that society.
Most of the Latinos I know that were born in the U.S. call themselves American and indeed speak English and love this country. Regardless of where their parents came from or their status, these children have little to no connection with that former country.
To deny children born on American soil nationhood is to deny membership to millions of people who had no say in where they were born. It would criminalize millions of children and strip them of any nationality, perhaps leaving them nation-less, citizens of only the world in which they came into. It’s easy to act on a legal level and claim removal of only a document of citizenship, to call someone “illegal” or a “noncitizen,” as long as we don’t call someone a “nonperson.”
It’s even easier to silence someone by taking away their right to vote or not afford them the basic civil liberties guaranteed to all people under the Constitution. It’s much more difficult to explicitly write into law that these denials are based on race, ethnicity or class — or perhaps on some deeply-rooted fear we have for one another.
But today even that, it seems, is getting easier.
Ron Bilbao is a guest columnist for The Daily Tar Heel. He is a senior Political Science major from Miami, FL. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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