If the ghost of Abraham Lincoln visited you to ask about the state of the republic, would you say, “The ideals for which you died remain uncontested – you may rest in peace”? Or would your honest nature compel you to tell the Great Emancipator’s shade about Donald Trump’s plan to deny American citizenship to children born in this country of undocumented parents? Would the phantom shed a tear when told that Trump does not stand alone; other Republican presidential hopefuls have endorsed this idea too.
America has long been blessed with a principle of law called “birthright citizenship,” which establishes that all born within the United States are automatically citizens of the United States. As set out in 1868 by the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and affirmed in 1898 by the U.S. Supreme Court, birthright citizenship does not depend on considerations of descent or lineage such as the nationality or immigration status of one’s parents.
The 14th Amendment was proposed and ratified shortly after the Civil War to ensure that ideals over which the war was fought were incorporated as part of our nation’s fundamental principles of government. The 14th Amendment’s Citizenship Clause states, “All persons born in the United States . . . are citizens of the United States.” This clause erased the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857, a U.S. Supreme Court case that denied U.S. citizenship to American-born children of slaves of African descent.
If doubts existed to whether birthright citizenship extended to the children of foreigners, they were laid to rest by an 1898 U.S. Supreme Court case concerning the status of Wong Kim Ark, a child born in the United States to Chinese immigrants. The then-existing Chinese Exclusion laws barred Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. In a landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court unequivocally declared Wong Kim Ark to be a U.S. citizen, rejecting the argument that the immigration status of a U.S.-born child’s parents could limit the operation of the Citizenship Clause.
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Although often taken for granted by Americans who have never had to live without its benefits, U.S. citizenship may be the most precious possession Americans hold. Only citizens enjoy the right to vote — perhaps the most basic of rights because it empowers its holders to choose their government. Trump would deny this and other fundamental rights such as equality under the law, due process and economic opportunity to untold numbers of persons born in this country.
Trump hopes to ostracize the U.S.-born babies of undocumented residents of this country. These innocents have done nothing to violate U.S. laws. Rather, through no fault of their own, they have been born to the “wrong” parents. As generations of other U.S.-born persons with foreign-born parents have done before them, these U.S.-born children are likely to make the United States their permanent home. They will formulate ties to their communities and this country and strive to make them better places to live.
Sadly, Trump would deny these native-born children the priceless benefits associated with citizenship and introduce discriminatory principles into the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of individual liberties and even-handed application of the law. By denying U.S. citizenship to these children, Trump would create a permanent underclass of residents of this country. And because U.S.-born children of undocumented parents are predominately members of racial minorities, Trump’s attempt to make exceptions to the citizenship status of these children imperils the survival of our multicultural society by threatening to resurrect the racist policies announced in Dred Scott.
Make no doubt about it, if Lincoln were alive today he would oppose Trump’s mean-spirited attempt to circumvent the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship. Honest Abe would be the first to ask Trump, “If you are successful in depriving American-born babies of constitutionally-granted citizenship, who will you seek to disenfranchise next?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Boos is a Bellingham lawyer whose practice includes both acquisition and relinquishment of U.S. citizenship.