The disturbing implications of the power to revoke the citizenship of someone born in the USA. How long until Donald Trump decides that any journalist who criticizes him, any voter who supportes the Democrats or anyone whose sexuality makes Mike Pence nervous is not favored?
First published in November 2018.
In an interview with Axios on 30 October, Donald Trump declared his belief that he has the power to end birthright citizenship, through an executive order — and his desire to do so.
Birthright citizenship, a guarantee meant to correct the violation of human rights that was slavery, is found in the first section of the Fourteenth 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.
This acknowledges that each person is an individual, not the property of anyone else and not defined, for good or for ill, by the person’s ancestry.
I say for good or for ill because while the Fourteenth Amendment itself was a response to the horror of the Civil War, the Constitution as originally written — in Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 — prohibits the granting of any titles of nobility in the United States. A person is neither a slave nor an aristocrat in this country. In the eyes of the law, we are all equal.
To be sure, that is too often an unapplied truth in practical matters, but it is a good piece of guidance, one that in a free society we must always be working towards. And the fact that women and blacks and gays have many more opportunities to live as full members of our society today, however precarious that may be in the era of Trump, is evidence of the progress we have made.
As I hear from time to time, the Constitution is not a perfect document. The circuit breaker that the electoral college is supposed to be, for example, did not do its intended job in 2016, for example. But we have to evaluate each part of it for its effect in protecting or endangering the rights of every person under the document’s authority.
Trump claimed that we are the only nation in the world that acknowledges birth within our territory as necessarily granting citizenship — with the exception of the children of foreign ambassadors who are under the jurisdiction of their home countries. His assertion is characteristically false, and in this case, how he is wrong is important to the concept.
Most of the nations of the western hemisphere have the same principle that anyone born within their borders is a citizen of that nation. In the Old World for much of the period of human civilization, a person was the sum of the person’s ancestors. Peasants gave birth to peasants who would perform whatever jobs they and their forebears had done. Lords and kings acquired the same genetic destiny. This was true across the continents of the east, as illustrated in the caste system of India and the Three Estates of Europe. The latter does contain one notable exception, namely the clergy, but even in that case, the children of noble families — recall the Borgias and the Medicis — tended to find themselves in higher ranks within the Church than did the sons of the common folk. Geoffrey Chaucer’s parson comes to mind here as a sketch of the type.
By contrast, and however imperfectly, in the New World, we are by and large landless immigrants. For those of us whose ancestry is primarily European, our title to the territory is grounded on an uncomfortable provenance, and the accommodations on the Mayflower were not so very different from those of steerage class passengers of the steamships, and the various daughters that celebrate their ties to Plymouth Rock or the American Revolution are only applying so much concealer over a foundation that is of no significant difference from anyone else’s. Your ancestor may have been the king of Proosha, but what have you done for me lately.
We are, in other words, the embodiment of the Enlightenment ideals that understood all of us to be children of the same state of nature who came together to make something of ourselves. Ancestry is not destiny, and wishing things to be otherwise is only a desire to march backward.
There is another danger in Trump’s madness here. As the list of persons and groups that he declares to be enemies of the people grows, the implications of the power to revoke the citizenship of someone born in this country are disturbing. How long would it be until he decided to say that any journalist who criticizes him, any voter who supported a Democrat, or anyone whose sexuality makes Mike Pence nervous is not one of the favored us?
Neither arbitrary power nor an exaggerated belief in genetic determinism are good standards for who is and is not a citizen. Donald Trump’s proposal to revoke birthright citizenship is not who are are and certainly not who we want to be.🔷
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