In 1895, Wong Kim Ark returned to California after leaving for China in 1894. When he reached San Francisco’s port, the Customs denied him entry into the United States. Although Ark was born in San Francisco, the official wrote, he was not considered an American because he was born to immigrant Chinese parents.
This customs detainment sparked a legal battle which wound its way to the Supreme Court. In U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), the Court ruled that through the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, Wong Kim Ark, by virtue of his birth on American soil, was indeed an American citizen.
Section I of the 14th Amendment orrginally meant to secure citizenship rights for the children of newly freed slaves after the Civil War. With the 1898 Supreme Court decision, this so-called “citizenship clause” extended citizenship to everyone, save the children of diplomats and foreign officials, born on American soil. This meant that anyone, whether the child of a sixth-generation American business tycoon or that of a penniless, recently-arrived immigrant, had the rights of an American.
Today, however, the GOP is pushing for sudden and alarming immigration and citizenship reform. In one example, state legislatures are proposing issuing two birth certificates: one would be the standard certificate for children whose parents can demonstrate citizenship or legal residence; a second certificate would curtail citizenship rights to those children born to undocumented or temporary-resident parents. Others are even pushing for changing the language of the 14th Amendment to that effect.
This is appalling. Tackling immigration issues by seizing the rights of immigrants’ children achieves nothing but division. It highlights the xenophobic and nativist tendencies of conservative lawmakers. The Tea Party, which has vociferously advocated strict adherence to the Constitution, is hypocritically trying to go around consistently applied and upheld interpretations of the 14th Amendment to assuage their fears of an immigrant “invasion” of America. By denying American citizenship to selective categories of American-born children, the United States risks perpetuating an intergenerational underclass of American people. It risks, in other words, approximating the condition of slavery the 14th Amendment sought to extinguish.
The United States is at a crossroads: it can either follow the example of increasingly nationalist and isolationist foreign governments, like France and India, which for the most part, succumbed to anti-immigrant sentiment by resorting to citizenship by lineage, or it can continue its long-standing, proud tradition of citizenship by birthright. Justice demands that these citizens must have their rights and freedoms vigorously preserved, not selectively, fearfully revoked for fear of cultural difference or societal change.
Vicente Patiño is a sophomore architecture major.
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