Redirect U.S. Moral Preaching At Our Own Birthright Citizenship Debate

Kerry Martin Denver Colorado UVMWe observe US immigration policy with a lens far rosier than any through which we judge policy in the rest of the world. The Slate satire segment titled “If It Happened There,” which reports on domestic affairs in the same tone we use for foreign ones, should drive home the point that the US media sanitizes (or justifies) instability and atrocities in the states while condemning them abroad. And immigration discussions strike at the heart of this hypocrisy: while we’re eager to mourn the thousands of lives lost in Europe’s Mediterranean moat and condemn the EU response, we either turn away from the hundreds of Mexicans and Central Americans who perish every year passing through our southern border deserts, or call it a job well done.

Of the countless inhumane, illogical solutions to “the immigration issue” that both sides of the aisle propose–tightening borders, increasing (or focusing) deportations, expanding the current visa programs, deferring action indefinitely–few are more appalling than revoking the birthright citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment. And few ideas better exhibit how our country alters its expectations of humanitarianism when it looks in the mirror.

Kerry Martin Denver Colorado UVM
In dark blue are the countries with full-fledged birthright citizenship laws.

Birthright citizenship, jus soli, the idea that everyone born on a country’s soil (except the children of foreign diplomats) is a citizen of that country, has become as American as Obama eating nine different types of Thanksgiving pie. In fact, it is a policy almost endemic to the Americas: few nations outside North and South America grant citizenship to those born on their soil regardless of their parents’ citizenship status, yet almost every American nation does. Our unique hemispheric legal legacy likely stems from our all somehow being immigrants (except of course for Amerindians, though we never really invited them to our lawmaking parties…).

While controversy over US birthright citizenship has bubbled for years, rage over the laws has heated up in recent months: Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) have both introduced bills this year that would reinterpret the 14th Amendment, withholding citizenship from US-born children of undocumented immigrants.

Kerry Martin Denver Colorado UVM
May he who is without sin cast the first stone…

Democrats, for their part, have railed against these proposals, with Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) calling King’s bill “one of the most loathsome, xenophobic proposals in recent memory.” Latino and Left-leaning media have rushed to birthright citizenship’s defense, and they remain optimistic about these bills’ imminent, croaking death on the Congress floor. (For Mitch McConnell, they pray the same.)

But Republicans are in their own world: right-wing politicians and journalists have cranked up their sneering remarks about “whether Congress intended the 14th Amendment’s Citizenship Clause to turn children of illegal aliens into U.S. citizens at birth,” as The Sonoran News puts it. Publications like The Right Side News insist we be concerned about “birth tourism,” “chain migration,” and the fact that potentially as many as 1 in 10 US babies are born to undocumented immigrants. And Fox News has harped on the issue for years. (These articles usually fail to explain the precise logistics of how children of the undocumented universally spread crime, disease, and pure evil through our streets.)

Former US Representative from Colorado and professional crazy person Tom Tancredo took to conservative network

Kerry Martin Denver Colorado UVM
Real photoshopping by The Westword magazine.

WND with the message “Time To End Ridiculous ‘Birthright Citizenship.'” Cursing not specifically Latinos/as but Middle Eastern people as the main benefactors of “birth tourism,” he conveniently exposed conservatives’ main qualm with the 14th Amendment as one of racial and religious anxiety:

We are awarding automatic citizenship to thousands of babies born to Muslim parents who are not citizens of our country . . . those children can later return to the United States as citizens–and, moreover, they can then bring their parents, who will then become eligible for citizenship as well.

No other country in the world allows such insanity, and it is long past time to end it.

Well, Tom, at least 30 countries do allow such insanity, and would you believe it, they’ve avoided armageddon.

Yet the birthright citizenship debate rages on, this year’s upsurge just one of many in the past decade’s series of anti-immigrant constitutional rereadings. While Democrats might dismiss this year’s proposed laws as political suicide for their proponents, they would be wrong to ignore the prevailing culture of intolerance towards US-born children of undocumented immigrants and the optimism of the anti-birthright citizenship movement.

All this brings me to my original question: While we have to a certain extent normalized our country’s questioning of birthright citizenship–which says a lot, since, to borrow Pelosi’s phrase, withholding birthright is only “one of the most loathsome, xenophobic proposals” across our country’s wide landscape of illogical, anti-humanitarian ideas for immigration reform–how have we responded to the withholding of birthright citizenship in other parts of the world? And what do the differences between our domestic and international reactions to citizenship law manipulation this say about the dangerously self-justifying exceptionality with which we view our own country and its immigration situation?

Across the world and its history, revoking and withholding citizenship has been a mechanism for justifying immigrant exclusion, political persecution, and even genocide. Yet while these exclusionary motives to some extent hold true for enforcers of citizenship law everywhere, the US and the West react to and represent individual cases of citizenship law manipulation in different ways.

For instance, Ireland was once the only country in the EU to grant birthright citizenship, until a 2004 public referendum revoked the law. Sifting through news archives for any public outcry, from the US or elsewhere in the Western media, I was shocked to find practically nothing. Quite the contrary, what I ended up finding in US media was a warm reception to Ireland’s law, complete with suggestions that our country adopt similar measures–as New Zealand did in 2005, again without any outcry.

Kerry Martin Denver Colorado UVM
The DR’s citizenship laws have been called an Apartheid against Haitians.

However, the Dominican Republic did away with its birthright citizenship law in 2004 and required people of foreign (primarily Haitian) descent born in the DR to register with the government or face deportation, and all the while it has faced world-wide outrage, with Western governments, media, and the Dominican diaspora condemning the DR for anti-humanitarian citizenship law manipulation. Much of this outrage comes from the same people who, in the European case, refuse to grant citizenship to millions of children of undocumented immigrants in their own countries, or in the US case, begrudge the millions who have already been granted citizenship by means of birthright.

The same logic applies to Myanmar, where the Rohingya people–a Muslim ethnic minority of 1.1 million denied citizenship and violently persecuted by the country’s Buddhist majority–have garnered international outrage over Myanmar’s citizenship laws. Amidst an escalating crisis of desperate Rohingya migrants fleeing Myanmar in rickety boats (inviting comparisons to the ongoing migration situation on the Mediterranean), the US has demanded that Myanmar amend Rohingya statelessness by recognizing their birthright citizenship. This US assertion goes against Myanmar’s insistence that the Rohingya are actually “Bengali” citizens of India and Bangladesh–and it also goes against any US opposition to its own birthright citizenship laws, and even against US complacency with European citizenship policy.

The examples go on and on, and a pattern seems to emerge: the US, and the West as a whole, continually condemn cases of citizenship law manipulation throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the developing world as human rights abuses, while back home, they are seen as smart policy, a reasonable solution to an immigration issue that belongs anywhere except on our borders and shores.

Some headlines seem to forebode “the time to end birthright citizenship” as the deadline of some developmental countdown, as if we have outgrown an archaic policy and must now catch up to Europe before it’s too late, letting the Global South work out the whole migration issue on its own. On the contrary, now is the time for the West to embrace birthright citizenship and other forms of immigrant inclusion, as escalating crises like global economic inequality, over-militarization, and climate change spur migration to uncontrollable levels.

And US Democrats, Progressives, and immigration activists must go much further than simply dismissing anti-birthright laws as ludicrous. Lawmakers and the media ought to hold US citizenship law to the same human rights standard to which it holds developing nations, who are far less equipped that the West to welcome new citizens, at its borders as well as in its delivery rooms. Not only must we promote birthright citizenship as a fundamentally and eternally American value, we must encourage it throughout Europe and the rest of the developed world as a logical, tolerant, and humanitarian policy that, in the face of unstoppable immigration, we must adopt sooner rather than later.

No country should abandon the children of its soil to statelessness. And on this point, it’s about time the nations of the West practice what they preach.

Kerry Martin Denver Colorado UVM

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2 thoughts on “Redirect U.S. Moral Preaching At Our Own Birthright Citizenship Debate

  1. Birthright citizenship is a fundamental part of US democracy, but you can’t call the US hypocritical on this issue. Birthright citizenship is the law of the land in the US, and that is extremely unlikely to change any time soon, because it is enshrined in the Constitution. Those who advocate the elimination of birthright citizenship are on the nativist fringe, where they belong.

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    1. Hi Richard, good point, you’re right that the US goes much further than most countries to protect birthright citizenship, and if my article comes off as a complete condemnation of the US, I did not mean it so. But I argue two things: 1) That Democrats/lefties should maintain a proactive stance against the anti-birthright citizenship movement before it gains real momentum and power, as similar xenophobic parties and ideologies recently have throughout Europe, and 2) That it is even our duty to spread birthright citizenship to our European/Western allies, and it is hypocritical of us not to do so while we condemn developing countries like the DR and Mynamar for not honoring the birthright citizenship of their people.
      Thanks for commenting!

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