Until the 1960s, it was common to see signs in Texas that read: “No Dogs, Negros or Mexicans.” Civil rights legislation put an end to such signs. In the current post-civil rights era, it is no longer legally or morally permissible to express overt discrimination towards Mexicans or any other racial or ethnic group.
(Image Source: Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia)
In today’s political context, however, it is acceptable to insist that undocumented migrants – and even their U.S. born children – should not be allowed in this country. In July 2010, Senator Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) proposed a bill that would end the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship for everyone born in the United States. As of today, 130 Senators have indicated they support this bill.
Since the inception of the United States, jus soli – the idea that citizenship is determined by birthplace – has prevailed as the law of the land. The only exceptions to birthright citizenship have been racial. The first piece of U.S. legislation regarding who could be a citizen was passed in 1790, granting citizenship to all whites born in the United States. It was not until the 14th Amendment was passed in 1868 that blacks were granted citizenship. The 14th Amendment reads:
“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 14th Amendment granted birthright citizenship to blacks and whites born in the United States. However, the Supreme Court had to clarify in United States v. Wong Kim Ark in 1898 that all native-born children of aliens – including the Chinese – were indeed citizens of the United States.
Today’s demands to repeal birthright citizenship do not have the clear racial bias like those of the 19th century, when it was acceptable to make outright claims to exclude Native Americans, blacks, and the Chinese from citizenship. Instead, today’s demands are under the guise of “Let’s not give citizenship to illegals.” Or, “Let’s protect our nation by preventing anchor babies.” The language has changed so that it’s no longer explicitly racial. However, the sentiment is the same.
In 1790, when our founders imagined who would be citizens of the United States, they had propertied white men in mind. Those proponents of ending birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented migrants share this ideal as to who belongs to the nation.
This vitriol can be seen in the comments of Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican state representative from Pennsylvania, who argued:
“We want to bring an end to the illegal alien invasion that is having such a negative impact on our states.”
When Metcalfe and other pundits call for an end to a so-called “illegal alien invasion,” they have a very specific group in mind: Mexicans and other Latin American immigrants. In fact, 95 percent of people who are deported from this country for immigration-related violations are Latinos or Caribbean immigrants.
It is no longer permissible to hang signs that say “No Dogs, Negros, Mexicans.” Birthright citizenship and naturalization are available to all people in the United States, regardless of race. However, the idea that the United States is fundamentally a white nation has not gone away, and seeps into discourses about who is American and who belongs and who doesn’t. Instead of excluding Mexican and Chinese citizens from citizenship, we now hear claims to exclude “illegals” and their children.
The idea of race itself is based on the notion that moral and cultural characteristics are passed on from one generation to the next. Thus, the idea that we should exclude not only undocumented migrants, but also their children, is clearly a racialized argument. It is true that undocumented migrants do not have permission from the government to be here. But, their undocumented status does not define them. Current laws allow many undocumented migrants to eventually become citizens of this country. Calls to eliminate birthright citizenship work to essentialize illegality by making it a permanent feature of undocumented migrants, and something they pass along to their children. In effect, these calls racialize illegality.
Demonizing undocumented migrants for their transgression of immigration laws allows anti-immigrant activists to make racialized claims about who belongs and who does not belong to the nation. It is incumbent upon anti-racist activists to point out this racism and to promote the idea of a multi-ethnic nation – the sort of nation we actually always have been, despite white supremacist claims to the contrary.