Americans for Constitutional Citizenship

Alan Jenkins

Congratulations! You’re expecting a baby. There are a million things to do, from getting the nursery in order to buying a car seat and finding a pediatrician. Also, start documenting your family tree. Dig up your passport, and your parents’ passports, and maybe their parents’ too. Otherwise, your baby might not be a full American with full rights and responsibilities. Seriously, if a group of politicians and political operatives have their way.

Last week, The Opportunity Agenda joined with a diverse group of civil and human rights organizations to form Americans for Constitutional Citizenship, a coalition dedicated to protecting the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee that all of us who are born on U.S. soil are American citizens. The coalition became necessary when a group of state lawmakers unveiled a scheme to eliminate that guarantee, in the name of addressing immigration. Just a day later, Representative Peter King filed a bill in Congress to do the same thing through federal legislation.

The politicians’ proposals are contrary to our values and interests as Americans. And at a time when our nation needs calm and deliberative solutions, they are politicized distractions designed to turn up the heat on an already overheated debate.

Tampering with the American Citizenship Clause would harm us all. A birth certificate would no longer be proof that you are a citizen, since the proposals would necessitate proof that one or both of your parents were also citizens. That, in turn, would require a new and burdensome federal, state, and local bureaucracy to track ancestry. Americans born after the law’s enactment could have their citizenship constantly called into question, as well as that of their children, and their children’s children.

That’s wrong for Americans, and for America. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution and its American Citizenship Clause are core to what made us one nation out of the violent division of the Civil War. They are central to our liberty and equality as countrymen today, and part of what binds us to this nation, whatever our ancestry.

As a constitutional matter, the proposals could not survive, even if they were enacted. States have no power to define national citizenship in our federalist system. Nor does Congress have the power to legislate away the definition of citizenship that’s embodied in our Constitution.

There’s no question that that definition includes all kids born on U.S. soil, and for good reason. The Framers of the Amendment understood that there would always be groups in our society so vilified that their American-born children’s citizenship would be threatened. When the Amendment was adopted in 1868, those groups included former slaves and their descendants, as well as Chinese immigrants, who were barred from ever becoming citizens by the Chinese Exclusion Act. In crafting the Amendment, the Framers resolved that perpetuating two classes of Americans based on blood and parentage is not in our nation’s interest.

So the proposals are unconstitutional. But they have the potential to do significant damage before they are struck down. They would wreak havoc at hospitals, clerk’s offices, and departments of health. They would feed an ugly politics of Americans challenging the American-ness of American children. They would divide us at a time when we need unity.

That’s wrong for our kids, for ourselves, and for our country.

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