Birthright Citizenship

140 Years After Its Adoption, the Reactionary Right Turns on the 14th Amendment

If you had asked me in 2008 whether I thought it possible that there would be a sustained, orchestrated effort in the first two years of the first term of the first African-American President to undermine and question the integrity of the 14th Amendment I would have answered "no way."  The 14th Amendment of course being one of the three major Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution designed to correct the "three-fifths" of a person clause of the original Constitution and the entire racist body of law which grew up after its adoption. 

The recent news of the attacks on "birthright citizenship" promised in the 14th Amendment is not the first orchestrated attack we've seen on this influential Amendment, one which not just helped ended the institutional racism of the pre-Civil War United States, but which was used to dismantle 20th century segregation in the recent Civil Rights era.  Last year NDN led a national effort to push back against an effort by Senators Vitter and Bennett to knock undocumented immigrants out of the reapportionment process, something we and many others believed was a direct assault on this clause of the 14th Amendment

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State

Like the decision to grant people born here in the US citizenship, this clause was designed to prevent the institutional racism the practice of slavery created in the US from every reoccuring.  In the case of birthright citizenship, our nation made a decision to prevent any future group of American politicians from determing that any one group would be something less than the rest of us, as it had in the era of the "three-fifths" of a person clause.  Given our history, this seems, in hindsight, to have a particularly wise and thoughtful decision.

While in each case the target group of these recent radical assaults on the 14th Amendment were not African-Americans but recent Hispanic immigrants, is it really possible that in the early days of this new age of racial conciliation promised by the election of Barack Obama, that we are seeing a sustained set of attacks on the Constititional Amendment that has done more to promote equailty among the races in the US than other?  It is in some ways shocking, in some ways, perhaps, predictable.  Race has a tortured history in our proud nation, and it shouldn't be suprising that for some the experience of a non-white President might cause a particularly powerful reaction.

It is at moments like these that we need to stop using the word Republican or conservative to describe this type of approach to our politics.  Radical or reactionary is more apt.  And I am proud of Senator Harry Reid last year for standing up to the first sustained assault on the 14th Amendment, and staring it down, defeating it.  The question is - when are other political leaders, including our President, going to show the kind of courage Harry Reid showed last year and mount a sustained defense of the 14th Amendment and the politics that it ushered in the face of these reactionary attacks?

Update - I weigh in on this debate in an article in the the upcoming edition of the The Economist, now online here.

Update, 7pm - In a Washington Post Op-Ed, former Attorney General Gonzales comes out against the efforts to roll back the 14th Amendment.  It includes this powerful graph:

As the nation's former chief law enforcement officer and a citizen who believes in the rule of law, I cannot condone anyone coming into this country illegally. However, as a father who wants the best for my own children, I understand why these parents risk coming to America -- especially when there is little fear of prosecution. If we want to stop this practice, we should pass and enforce comprehensive immigration legislation rather than amend our Constitution.

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