by Jay Johansen | Jul 22, 2008
According to the Constitution, the 14th Amendment, "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."
Some today say that we should change or re-interpret this clause so that children of illegal aliens will not automatically be citizens.
I think this is a very bad idea, because it would throw everyone's citizenship and legal rights into question.
Suppose a Mexican woman came to the United States illegally. If she is here illegally, by definition she is not a U.S. citizen, and does not have the rights of a U.S. citizen. A few years later she has a baby, in the United States. Under present Constitutional law, the baby is a U.S. citizen. The baby grows up and has children of her own. They are U.S. citizen also. Etc.
Now suppose the law were changed to say that being born in the U.S. is not sufficient. You are only a citizen if your parents were citizens, or if you yourself go through the immigration and naturalization process. Then this Mexican woman's baby is not a citizen. If the baby is not a citizen, then if she grows up and has children, they are not legal citizens either. And so on, until someone in the family line becomes a legal immigrant. The family could live here for five or ten or a hundred generations, but because that first person who came to America was here illegally, none of the descendents are legally citizens.
Do you see the problem? Suppose such a law was passed. Do you think that you are a U.S. citizen? Are you sure? You say you were born here. But that's no longer relevant. Were your parents citizens? You say there were born here. Then were your grandparents legal citizens? Your great-grandparents? To prove you are a citizen, it would no longer be sufficient to show your birth certificate. You would have to produce the birth certificates of your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, all the way back to the first ancestor who came to this country, and then you would have to show his or her naturalization papers. If at any point in the chain you were unable to find the appropriate records, then you could not prove your citizenship. You could be an illegal alien and not even know it.
Paradoxically, the longer your family has been in this country, the more difficult it would be to prove your citizenship. If your father immigrated here, it might not be too hard to find some records of his naturalization. But if your family came here with the Pilgrims, you would have to trace back through hundreds of years of records. Only recent immigrants and avid students of geneology would enjoy the legal rights of citizens.
The rest of us would not only lose our right to vote, but be subject to being deported. As it is unlikely that any other country considers someone whose family has lived in America for hundreds of years to be a citizen of their country, tens of millions of Americans -- or people who thought they were Americans -- would suddenly find themselves homeless refugees.
Now you may say, Get real. If such a law was passed, the government wouldn't start reviewing the citizenship status of every American and kicking everyone who cannot produce all these geneological records out of the country. I agree. They're not going to do that.
But what I fully expect would happen, is that this would become a tool for the government and private parties to harass people they didn't like. Suppose the government suspects someone of being a drug dealer but is unable to find evidence to prove this in court. Okay then, if they can't convict him on drug charges, they can challenge his citizenship, and maybe succeed in kicking him out of the country. If he's really guilty of being a drug dealer and they can't convict him because he's clever enough to hide the evidence, maybe finding this round-about way to prosecute him is a good thing. But what if this is a case of an over-zealous prosecutor and the reason they can't convict him in court is because he's completley innocent? Do we really want to give over-zealous prosecutors ways to prosecute people without evidence of actual crimes?
People in power would suddenly have a new way to attack their political opponents. Senator Jones is giving the president trouble? The president can get immigration to start checking out his family history. If they can find that his great-great-grandfather failed to fill out his immigration paperwork correctly, then Senator Jones was never eligible to be a senator to begin with. He can be kicked out of office, prosecuted for falsely claiming to be a citizen when he ran for office, and locked up or deported as an illegal alien. You don't think that would happen? You need only look at the number of politicians who have been prosecuted for trivial violations of campaign finance paperwork regulations.
Is a business rival giving you trouble by offering customers better service at lower prices? Improving your service could be awfully expensive. It might be cheaper to hire a private investigator to research your competitor's family history. Then petition a court to have him declared an illegal alien and prosecuted.
A friend of mine said that these fears of mine are unfounded because any such law would not be retroactive: it would only apply to people born after it was passed. Even if true, that only postpones the problem for future generations. You and I would be okay, but our children and grand-children would be at risk.
© 2008 by Jay Johansen