You are here

Trump's Anti-Citizenship Plan Is An Historic Loser

August 19, 2015
The arguments against the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship put forth by Donald Trump and other conservatives are, to borrow a descriptor oft-used by Trump himself, losers. Literally. Far from offering a bold new immigration reform plan that would "make America great again," Trump's plan recycles anti-immigrant ideas that were resoundingly defeated 150 years ago. In the process, he foolishly rejects values that are part of what makes America great in the first place.
 
Since its ratification in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment has guaranteed that "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." Just a decade before this language was added to our Constitution, the Supreme Court held in Dred Scott v. Sandford that persons of African descent could not be citizens under the Constitution. Our nation fought a civil war at least in part to repudiate the terrible error of Dred Scott and to secure, in the Constitution, citizenship for all persons born on U.S. soil, regardless of race, color, or parental origin.
 
When members of the Reconstruction Congress assembled to draft the birthright citizenship clause, they were writing against a backdrop of prejudice not only against African Americans, but also various immigrant communities, such as the Chinese in the West and Roma communities in the East. Much of the hostility against these 19th-century immigrants was similar to the resentment and distrust leveled at immigrants today: concern that immigrants would take away good jobs from U.S. citizens (while exhibiting a willingness to allow immigrants to take jobs perceived as undesirable); fear of waves of immigrants "invading" or overtaking existing American communities; and distrust of different cultures and languages.
 
For example, early in the 1866 debates, an opponent of birthright citizenship--Senator Edgar Cowan, often cited by modern opponents of birthright citizenship--objected to the citizenship provision by asking whether "it will not have the effect of naturalizing the children of the Chinese and Gypsies born in this country." Senator Lyman Trumbull, a key proponent of the citizenship clause, replied that it would, "undoubtedly," and made clear in the face of Cowan's xenophobic remarks that the child of such immigrants "is just as much a citizen as the child of a European."
 
When "We the People" wrote the birthright citizenship clause into the Constitution, we recognized that the promise of equality and liberty in the original Constitution needed to be permanently established for people of all colors and ethnicities. Fixing the conditions of birthright citizenship in the Constitution--rather than leaving them up to constant revision or debate--befits the inherent dignity of citizenship, which should not be granted according to the politics or prejudices of the day. Part of what makes America great is that we do not tolerate badges of inferiority or second-class citizenship. America isn't a reality show where you can get voted out just because the person with the loudest voice says "you're fired."
 
The principles motivating the Framers of the Reconstruction Amendments, of which the Citizenship Clause is a part, suggest that we amend the Constitution to reject automatic citizenship at the peril of our core constitutional values. At the heart of the 14th Amendment is the fundamental belief that all people are born equal with inalienable rights, and, if born in the United States, are born equal citizens regardless of color, creed, or social status. It is no exaggeration to say that the 14th Amendment is the constitutional embodiment of the Declaration of Independence and lays the foundation for the American Dream. Because of the 14th Amendment, all American citizens are equal and equally American. Whether one's parents were rich or poor, saint or sinner, welcomed ancestors or weary migrants, the 14th Amendment proclaims that ours is a nation where an American child will be judged by his or her own deeds.
 
Back in the 1860s, after a brutal civil war, our country rejected the anti-birthright citizenship arguments that Trump and others are pushing today. That moment, and the changes to the Constitution that resulted, pushed our nation further along the arc of progress. Ending birthright citizenship, far from "making America great again," would betray our most fundamental values.
 
Cross-posted at Huffington Post.