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Citizenship should be about inclusion, not exclusion

Irene Bloemraad, professor of sociology | August 26, 2010

About half of all children 18 years and younger in California have at least one immigrant parent.

Consider the implications of this astounding statistic in light of the summer’s political posturing about the 14th Amendment.

This Amendment, written into the Constitution in the wake of the Civil War, declares that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States… are citizens of the United States”. Politicians who want to appear tough on immigration are using calls to revise the 14th Amendment as another prong in the pitchfork they would like to use to push immigrants out of the country.

Imagine that they actually succeed and the United States eliminates birthright citizenship. Pushed to an extreme, this could mean that half the students in California’s schools would be foreigners in the country where they were born, grew up and go to school.

This summer’s political and media debate about immigration has focused exclusively on enforcement and exclusion. But what about inclusion and integration? Those who would change the 14th Amendment don’t discuss the implications for our ability to harness the skills and energies of our youngest citizens.

Would youngsters who are declared foreigners at birth invest as much in this country as they do now knowing they are citizens? What are the long-term implications of transferring the current anti-immigrant climate, directed at these youngsters’ parents, to the next generation?

The question is not just hypothetical. We have strong evidence about the integrative power of the 14th Amendment. From 1882 to 1952, U.S. Congress and courts enforced race-based restrictions on U.S. citizenship. At their height, almost no immigrant from Asia could legally naturalize to become a citizen.

Fear of the “yellow peril” was rampant in places like California. Various politicians and citizen groups also wanted to deny citizenship to the US-born children of Asian immigrants. In 1898 the Supreme Court, referring to the 14th Amendment, said that they couldn’t do this.

Today, these children—and their children and grandchildren—are among the most highly educated residents of California. They’ve served in the armed forces, started small businesses and multi-million dollar corporations, worked in public service, competed in the Olympics and added their creativity and vision to the arts and cultural landscape of the nation.

Imagine a world where these people couldn’t proudly proclaim that they are American, but instead where they were a permanent underclass of foreigners. Is that the sort of future we want?