14th Amendment nullification threatens core of citizenship

Posted: Thursday, September 02, 2010

When I was in the military in the 1970s, I heard two white soldiers talking on the rifle range. One soldier asked the other how he learned to shoot so well.

"I like shooting cans right off the fence," the other soldier responded, adding: "Af-ri-cans, Puer-to-Ri-cans and Mex-i-cans."

The comment came to mind when I heard Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., saying, "Birthright citizenship is a mistake," and when he and others started talking about immigrants having "anchor babies."

"People come here to have babies," said Graham. "They come here to drop a child. It's called, 'Drop and leave."'

Graham says he's considering introducing a bill to rescind Section 1 of the 14th Amendment.

Section 1 does confer citizenship on anyone born in the United States. But that's not all it does.

The second sentence of that section says: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Also called the "due process" clause or the "equal protection" clause, this part of the 14th Amendment is the very foundation of U.S. civil rights law. The Reconstruction-era amendment, finally adopted as part of the Constitution in 1868, ensured that former enslaved Africans and their children were U.S. citizens. Together with the 13th Amendment, which bans slavery, and the 15th, which prohibits the government from denying any citizen the right to vote on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude, the 14th Amendment is fundamental to the whole country's long walk toward human rights and equality under the law.

For instance, the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka decision was based on the idea that the discriminatory nature of racial segregation "violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees all citizens equal protection of the laws."

Tampering with the citizenship provision of the 14th Amendment in any way would be devastating. Apart from creating hundreds of thousands of newly defined "illegal" persons, it would return the United States to the doctrine of the 1857 Dred Scott decision and to the hideous idea that one can never overcome the status of one's previous condition: once a slave, always a slave; once undocumented, forever undocumented, down to one's children and children's children.

There may be a perverse benefit to all of this blatant nativism. It reminds us of our history, and it's a bracing reminder that some don't want to consider people of color Amer-i-cans.

• Gray is the author of the recently published books "Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics" and "The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama." He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Readers may write to the author at pmproj@progressive.org.



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