Last week, Lindsey Graham (R-SC), announced that he would consider introducing a bill to rescind a provision in the 14th Amendment which generally guarantees U.S. citizenship to those who are born within U.S. borders. Yesterday, Jon Kyl (R-AZ) agreed, saying that he is not interested in “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, but rather, in “hearings” to consider the repeal of the provision.
The historical context for the “Reconstruction Amendment” they challenge should not get lost here. The 14th Amendment’s citizenship clause was crafted in response to the prevailing legal sentiment in 1868—particularly in southern states—which had specifically challenged the right of African-Americans to be U.S. citizens. The citizenship provision intentionally liberated African-Americans and other people of color from the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which determined that people of African descent, particularly if they had ever been enslaved or descended from anyone who had been enslaved, were not entitled to the privileges of U.S. citizenship. The provision—along with other sections of the Amendment—also protected African-Americans from having to live by the rule of oppressive “black codes” which restricted access to certain areas and which required African-Americans to carry passes (i.e. documentation of their status).
Repealing the citizenship provision of the 14th Amendment would not only serve as a threat to the livelihood of immigrants—documented and undocumented—it should also be received as a threat to the very foundation of our nation’s civil and human rights law. It would dangerously stunt the growth of racial equality by implicitly returning to the doctrine of the Dred Scott decision and the idea that one cannot overcome the status of his or her previous condition—once a slave, always a slave. It would also reinforce the notion that if one is undocumented, he or she—and his/her descendants—may never enjoy the privileges of U.S. citizenship. Is this what we call progress?
WATCH ‘HARDBALL’ COVERAGE OF THE 14th AMENDMENT DEBATE:
There is no doubt that race, ethnicity and the question of citizenship has a complicated and troubled history in this nation, but what’s shameful is that our analysis and approach to these issues have failed to evolve over time. The same fever of racism that tainted past political discourse and policymaking on the issue of immigration—from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act to 1994’s Proposition 187 in California—threatens to undermine the integrity of current immigration responses.
Instituting laws which encourage racial profiling or which call for a national biometric worker identification system reflects the lack of a critical race, gender and power analysis, thereby relegating us to an unimaginative, xenophobic policy agenda that seems to reincarnate with each new generation of immigration challenges.
The idea that children born on U.S. soil should be denied their right to citizenship because of the parents’ undocumented status is born of the same disregard for human dignity that declared the children of enslaved Africans to be perpetual slaves. It is rooted in the same fear that has misinformed our nation’s interpretation of justice and fairness for more than a century; and it is also a framework that we must abandon if we are to realize our own legacy—and destiny—as a nation of immigrants.
The promise of American democracy, and inclusiveness, is one that is built on the idea that from the many, we become one strong nation. There is a continued need for the development of a federal continuum of comprehensive legislative responses to undocumented immigration; but there should be no tolerance for the denial of rights that protect individuals from racially-biased exclusion, exploitation or denigration.
As abolitionist Frederick Douglass said in an 1869 speech on The Composite Nation, “immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency. There are such things in the world as human rights…they are universal and indestructible.”