Recently, while attending a 14th Amendment rally at the Arizona State Capitol, I found myself embroiled in a short debate with a very angry man. He was striding by me and I couldn’t help but hear him muttering that Jesus would never have approved of this birthright citizenship nonsense. I simply couldn’t stop myself from quipping that I’d heard that Jesus’ parents did some border jumping themselves in order to attend a certain census.
The next thing I knew this man was pointing his finger in my face and yelling that I didn’t know a damned thing about Jesus. What followed was a short but heated back and forth, which consisted of him making lot of disparaging remarks about immigrants and their children and loudly interrupting everything I tried to say. I did manage to insert that my great-grandparents actually crossed into this country from Canada without papers and my grandmother was a citizen because she was born in America. All I got for my efforts was a shouted “I don’t care!” and a lot of other Fox News talking points before he stormed away.
Of course this incident merely reinforced my belief that arguing with angry people is a great waste of time and the subject of immigration seems to bring out the angriest of them. But I was also left to wonder just what would have happened to my own family if those who are endeavoring to rewrite the 14th Amendment had gotten their way 113 years ago when my grandmother was born.
The anti-birthright citizenship bills before Arizona and several other state legislatures base their premise entirely on the redefinition of some pretty simple words in Section 1 of the 14th Amendment—also known as the Citizenship Clause:
“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”.
The words “subject to the jurisdiction” have now been singled out for special consideration and this is the entire basis of Arizona’s new Senate Bill 1309. It’s always been upheld, including in the Supreme Court’s Wong Kim Ark decision in 1898, that these words are meant to differentiate those who are diplomats-- and not subject to our laws or jurisdiction-- from every other person born on our soil, no matter their race, country of origin or immigration status.
If we break it down, the word “subject” in this context is an adjective and per Webster’s dictionary the meaning is: “contingent on or under the influence of“. The other big word in dispute is “jurisdiction”. According to the Legal Dictionary the meaning of jurisdiction is “The geographic area over which authority extends; legal authority; the authority to hear and determine causes of action”.
So another way to say “all persons subject to the jurisdiction” would be “all persons under the influence of the legal authority”.
However, according to the sponsors of SB 1309, the REAL definition of the Citizenship Clause reads like this:
“For the purposes of this section, subject to the jurisdiction of the United States has the meaning that it bears in section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, namely that the person is a child of at least one parent who owes no allegiance to any foreign sovereignty, or a child without citizenship or nationality in any foreign country. For the purposes of this section, a person who owes no allegiance to any foreign sovereignty is a United States citizen or national, or an immigrant accorded the privilege of residing permanently in the united states, or a person without citizenship or nationality in any foreign country.”
That’s quite a mouthful, I must say.
Try as I may, I’ve yet to find this new definition anywhere that resembles a reference dictionary. Not only that, but now we are supposed to believe that this was the original intent of the 14th amendment and that everyone, including my grandmother and all the millions who were born here of parents who weren’t citizens, really were not meant to be allowed citizenship after all. Thankfully the sponsors have generously allowed all these past illegitimate claims of citizenship to stand. That’s mighty white of them, don’t you think?
Of course it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the sheer ridiculousness of this whole charade. If the nativists truly want to slam the door shut on our long-held practice of Jus Soli, or birthright citizenship, then just come out and say it and go through the proper process of amending the Constitution. That process is outlined very clearly in Article Five of that very same document and those who call themselves strict constitutionalists should follow it—unless they first choose to redefine more words like “two-thirds” or “three-fourths” instead.
Those in favor of removing Jus Soli from the 14th Amendment are well aware that the chances of amending the Constitution are slim to none. So they persist in wasting everyone’s time and resources by pushing silly and polarizing bills through various state legislatures. This assures that people-- such as myself-- will end up arguing with guys who think that Jesus would have spent his short time on earth deporting immigrants.
To get back to my great-grandparents, I actually know very little about them other than what I’ve been able to gather from the old census forms where they are described as “Canadian French”. They were born sometime in the latter half of the 1800s and came into the US before my grandmother’s birth in Massachusetts in 1898. Millions of Canadians of French extraction, mostly poor farmers, crossed our northern border during the 19th and 20th centuries to escape poverty and fill the many openings in the mills of the northeast during the industrial revolution. They brought with them their language, their customs, and a work ethic that allowed our country to boom.
Did my Canadian forebears cross legally into this country? Actually there were no restrictions on land border crossings into the US until the 20th century so while their presence here was considered legal because they were lucky enough to be white and not Asian; they were at the same time aliens until they declared their intention to naturalize. Then they would have had a five year wait before they were granted citizenship. So my grandmother was the first natural born citizen on my mother’s maternal side, or what our nativist Arizona politicians would distastefully refer to as an “Anchor Baby”. The fact that she spoke French probably would have pissed them off too.
Our immigration policies of today are designed to exclude people exactly like my great-grandparents; the poor, low-skilled workers who fled poverty or worse to fill the difficult and often dangerous jobs that others did not want in this country. People have migrated for millennia across these continents for exactly these same reasons—namely to find a better life for themselves and their children. Once we outright prohibit that migration we run into trouble. It’s time to address this issue in a sane and humane way, including fixing our broken immigration laws to allow those unskilled workers without any criminal record to enter and work based on labor markets, not infinitesimally small quotas.
We also must take a good hard look at the foreign policies we have in place, such as NAFTA, which serves to drive people off their homelands. Our drug and gun laws are promulgating a war in Mexico with tens of thousands murdered and this fuels the need to migrate even more. Only when we examine these issues honestly instead of wasting time creating more distracting and polarizing laws can we arrive at a reasonable and humane way to keep our country both free and safe.
I have no idea if my great-grandparents ever obtained their citizenship; maybe they simply worked hard and were thankful for the bounty they found in this great land. While their lives spent working in the mills were certainly not easy, their children and great grandchildren were able to prosper because of the choice they made to find a better life. Since I owe my place on this portion of the continent to them, I am grateful for that decision.
And I strongly suspect that Jesus would be among the first to welcome all who have followed in their footsteps.