Friday, April 23, 2010

Citizenship as a Birthright

Senator Harry Reid (D-Utah) is being quoted as saying that immigration reform is not on the agenda. Well, as soon as a politico says such a thing, it usually means it is.

When immigration does come up again, many will be talking about changing the way citizenship is granted in America. Right now, there are two ways, you are born here or you are granted citizenship through a long application process. Many feel that just because a child is born in the United States while the mother is in the country illegally, the child should not be given automatic citizenship. But, the Fourteenth Amendment states that children born in the United States are citizens. It states, “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.”

Those opposed to citizenship as a birthright argue that the Fourteenth Amendment was passed only to insure slaves would be citizens. This would deprive the southern states from enacting legislation that would only allow citizenship to those whose birthright goes back many generations. Therefore, preventing many former slaves from voting.

Assuring citizenship to former slaves was important. But, there was something else going on in America at the time. By the end of the Civil War there were large immigrant populations that had arrived over the last 20 years. As chronicled in both, “A Different Mirror” by Ronald Takaki and “The Party of Fear” by David H. Bennett, these immigrant populations were not well liked. One of many reasons is they were having an impact on the politics of the still young country. These populations represented large voting blocks in many northern states.

Before the Fourteenth Amendment citizenship was granted by the state you lived in. If states didn’t grant citizenship, chances are you were not a citizen of the country. The southern states knew that all they had to do was pass state laws sharply restricting citizenship to former slaves to prevent them from voting.

This was of great concern to the immigrants in the northern states. Many were born elsewhere, or were the first born here. If the northern states started doing the same thing, many of the new immigrants from European countries could lose their citizenship. So, the northern states supported a clause of the Fourteenth that would automatically granted citizenship to all people born in the country.

As a country, we may decide to make some changes in the way citizenship is granted. That would take a change in the Fourteenth amendment, or, perhaps a challenge to the interpretation of the amendment by the Supreme Court (the subject of another post at a later date). But, until then, birthright citizenship is there for everyone born in the country.

As a nation of immigrants, we should not change what has made us strong.

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