Citizenship versus disenfranchisement

The latest campaign of the anti-immigrant forces is to take away the right to U.S. citizenship of children of undocumented immigrants born in the United States.

The first article of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states: “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.” It obliges state governments to respect the rights of all citizens. The second article corrects the old insult against African Americans, whereby a slave was counted as three-fifths of a man. It states that House of Representatives representation shall be based on the entire population of the state “excluding Indians not taxed.”

In 1868, when the 14th Amendment was ratified, just three years after the end of the Civil War, the main objective was to make sure that the essence of slavery would not continue after it had been abolished in name (by the 13th Amendment). Yet at the time of ratification, immigrants in large numbers had been coming into the country, and there was certainly much public discussion of the pros and cons of immigration. If the Reconstruction Congress had wanted any kind of restriction on the children of immigrants becoming citizens, they would certainly have written this into the amendment.

Now, it is claimed without much evidence that undocumented immigrants deliberately come here to have a baby, so that this “anchor baby” will be able to make its proud parents legal residents and then citizens in the future. So anti-immigration Congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) calls for legislation to deny citizenship to babies born here to undocumented immigrant parents. Tancredo tried, but failed, to get an amendment to this effect into HR 4437, the gruesome anti-immigrant bill just passed by the House. He will keep trying, even though birthright citizenship probably can only be changed by a constitutional amendment, since it is guaranteed in the Constitution.

Some want to repeal or radically modify the 14th Amendment itself. That way, they can get rid of both “birthright citizenship” and the method of apportionment of House districts which counts non-citizens as well as citizens. As non-citizens are concentrated in heavily working-class districts that typically vote Democratic, the motives are pretty transparent, and it is no surprise that this has become a major goal of the most reactionary corporate/Republican tendencies.

The ultimate aim is the disenfranchisement of large numbers of working-class, minority people.

Our cynical corporate masters have created a situation in which “essential work” of the nation is being done by 11 million undocumented immigrants. More than 50 percent of our crops are harvested by undocumented labor, and in other industries undocumented immigrants are the backbone of the workforce. Yet these workers have no political or civic rights, and few labor rights that can be enforced. The Supreme Court’s Hoffman Plastic Compounds decision has made sure of the latter, ruling that undocumented workers illegally fired for union activities cannot collect back pay. This ruling hurts all workers and rewards exploiters and union-busters.

As a “solution” to the “problem” of undocumented immigration, President Bush and others promote, not legalization of the undocumented, but a guest worker program. In most formulations of such a program, workers will be allowed to come for three-year stretches to work here, but they will probably not be able to bring their families, settle and become part of the community. If perchance a guest worker strays beyond the barbed wire and has a baby, the child would be a stateless person, with no civic rights, if Tancredo and his ilk get their way.

There is a parallel in the fact that some states, such as Florida, permanently revoke the voting rights of anyone convicted of a felony. This is extra punishment for the felon plus his or her family and neighbors, whose entire community thus loses political leverage. Without these restrictions, George Bush would not have won Florida in 2000 and would not be president. So this law, in keeping a disproportionately large number of working-class and especially African American people from exercising the right to vote, serves big capital and the political right.

If the citizenship of the children of undocumented immigrants, many of whom have never even visited their parents’ country of origin and may not know the language, is taken away, it will have the same effect. They will not “return” to a country where they have never been, and no country has to accept “back” children not born within its borders. As stateless persons, they will be unable to defend themselves in either the workplace or the community.

And this will disenfranchise a great chunk of the working class. Just as it is in the interest of the whole working class to demand the restoration of voting rights to people with felony convictions, it is in the interests of the whole working class to stop Tancredo from taking away the citizenship of children of migrant workers, whether undocumented or so-called “guests.”

Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist.