I’m really not sure if this is pure political saber-rattling or a genuine debate the GOP is looking to engage in, but earlier this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joined other top Republicans in raising the question of birthright citizenship.
The whole debate stems from the Arizona illegal immigration debate, which has focused on punitive legislation to make life in the United States so heinous to undocumented immigrants from Mexico as to discourage border-crossing. SB 1070, of course, was intended to use the state and local police force to track down, detain and deport illegal immigrants by institutionalizing racial profiling of Arizona residents; according to federal judge Susan Bolton, the law had the unintended consequence of also legalizing harassment of the state’s legal immigrants.
Arizona Republicans have bandied about other ideas that would use state laws to harass illegal immigrants in order to drive them out of the country. Former state legislator running for re-election to the Arizona Corporation Commission, Barry Wong, has proposed that the Commission (which oversees the state’s utility policies) require electricity providers to check the immigration status of customers, and to cut power to any customer who cannot demonstrate that he or she is legally in the country. HB 2281 has banned the teaching of ethnic studies in the state’s public schools; current school superintendent and Republican candidate for state attorney general Tom Horne was quoted as saying that the bill was intended to wipe out “ethnic chauvinism” he believed was being taught in a Southern Arizona Chicano studies program. The program offered optional classes to students that encouraged reading of Chicano authors and teaching of Mexican-American history. SB 1097, a bill that is currently being considered in the State House, would — in essence — deputize school administrator as immigrations officers empowered to request and verify the immigration documents of public school students, and to report the enrollment of illegal immigrant children in their schools. Failure to do so would result in loss of state money to the school.
Not surprisingly, State Senator Russell Pearce has sponsored many of the state bills targeting illegal immigrants. Pearce has annointed himself the state’s primary champion against illegal immigrants since the shooting of his son, a Maricopa county sherriff, by men who turned out to be illegally in the country.
Along with SB 1070 and SB 1097, Pearce has now turned his attention to an issue described by a pejorative term popularized by anti-illegal immigrant activists in Arizona: “anchor babies”. Pearce and his cadre of nativist politicians believe that America’s Fourteenth Amendment, which grants American citizenship to any child born within the United States or its territories, provides an incentive for pregnant mothers to illegally enter the country so that they can give birth to their child. The child is granted American citizenship, so the theory goes, and than sponsors re-entry of its parents into the country or stays deportation proceedings.
The problem with the “anchor baby” argument is two-fold.
First of all, Pearce’s hysteria over “anchor babies” is, frankly, preposterous. Children cannot sponsor the immigration of family members until they are 21 years of age. Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Immigration and Customs Enforcement can refuse to stay a deportation on account of an underage child with American citizenship. While statistics on how many children are born to illegal immigrants are hard to come by (I spent about half an hour on the CDC’s National Vital Statistics System trying to figure out how to find the appropriate data), ABC reports that approximately 7,500 children are born to non-resident mothers nationwide (compared to 4.2 million total births). We’re not talking about a pandemic, here.
Yet, Pearce would have us imagine that pregnant mothers are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in droves. Considering that thousands of able-bodied people (i.e. people who are not seven months pregnant) die in the deserts along the U.S.-Mexico border, it’s hard for me to imagine scores of pregnant women deciding to embark on a two-week long hike through the harsh Arizona deserts with nothing more than a bottle of water, Montem brand trekking poles, all in the vain hope that their children could eventually sponsor their re-entry into the United States… in twenty-one years.
Between the morning sickness, the bladder pressure, and the swollen ankles, most pregnant women I know have a rough time walking 50 feet, let alone 50 miles.
But, on a more serious note, Pearce’s attack on “birthright citizenship” is also alarming for the effect that it has on our basic understanding of citizenship in America. Citizenship by circumstance of birth was introduced as a means of granting citizenship rights to all children in America, regardless of race or ethnic background; it’s no coincidence that birthright citizenship is included in the same amendment that established political equality for people of colour.
In truth, Pearce’s proposal — that citizenship be conferred to children based on the citizenship status of its parents — is not new. Prior to the Fourteenth Amendment, the status of parents influenced the rights granted to their child. Although America adopted the tradition of birthright citizenship from Britain, America did not historically grant citizenship to the children of black slaves regardless of birthplace. This practice was upheld in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which found that Scott was not a citizen of the United States by virtue of his race, despite having been born in Virginia. The race of a child’s parents determined the race of a child (re: one-drop rules), which in turn determined whether the child could be granted political rights and American citizenship.
Yet, even in the mid-nineteenth century, America recognized the injustice of such a practice. With the Fourteenth Amendment, White men could no longer deny the citizenship of the children of Black slaves by being empowered to decide whether or not they qualify for protection under American federal law; simply by circumstance of birth, these children were rendered politically equal regardless of their parentage. We reiterated the importance of this basic understanding of American citizenship back in 1898 with Wong Kim Ark vs. United States.
Pearce is operating under a basic — and inflammatory — belief that illegal immigrants are not deserving of constitutional rights. But Pearce’s interpretation of the Constitution attacks legal and illegal immigrants alike, regardless of race or national origin. By virtue of not having American citizenship, Pearce apparently believes that non-citizens (legal or illegal) should not be awarded due process or protected from unwarranted searches and seizures (which, actually, explains a lot of his reasoning for sponsoring SB 1070). Pearce’s suggestion that the federal government once more be allowed to decide who can, and who cannot, be awarded American citizenship hearkens back to a time when certain groups in this country were not protected by the law, and were considered three-fifths of a man.
In essence, Pearce doesn’t believe that the rights awarded by the U.S. Constitution are actually rights. Rather, he sees the Bill of Rights as a “Bill of Privileges” — or, more accurately, a “Bill of White Privileges”.
Frankly, I believe that’s not an America that I — or anyone — should want to be a part of.
Cross-posted: Blog for Arizona