President Donald Trump is like a dog with a bone when it comes to immigration. Not only will he not let it go, but he has started gnawing at how we determine citizenship in this country. Specifically, Trump would like to use the power of an executive order to put an end to what is often referred to as “anchor babies”, a term which the dictionary defines as a child born to a non-citizen mother in a country which has birthright citizenship, especially when viewed as providing an advantage to family members seeking to secure citizenship or legal residency.
As usual, Trump propped up his unprecedented announcement with false statements and assumptions. He incorrectly asserted that, “We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States….”. The truth is that at least 30 other countries around the world recognize a right to birthright citizenship, including most of our neighbors in the Western hemisphere. Yet that hasn’t stopped folks from jumping on the bandwagon, including members of congress talking about introducing legislation to acquiesce Trump’s stated goals.
Birthright citizenship is a constitutional right provided for in the first line of the 14th Amendment, which reads, “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”. So, it would take a constitutional amendment to overturn it. Not even a law, like that suggested by some Republican members of Congress could overturn birthright citizenship.
But for me, Trump’s challenge hits close to home. Placed in a historical framework, Trump is attacking the heart of an issue that resulted from the blood, sweat, and loss of life of enslaved and free black people in the United States. Precisely, I’m referring to the case of Dred Scot in 1857. Mr. Scot was enslaved in Missouri, but escaped and lived in the free state of Illinois and Wisconsin for a number of years. He sued and argued that living in a free state had made him a free man. The case went to the Supreme Court. They ruled against him stating that he wasn’t a citizen because he was born a slave he was property. Therefore, any law that deprived a slave owner of their property was unconstitutional under the 5th Amendment.
In effect, the Court ruled that U.S. citizenship was reserved for white people. That was a wake-up call. Following the Dred Scot Case, black people and abolitionists realized that citizenship would be the key to securing themselves rights in the country that was built on their backs. Following the Civil War, as the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments codified black American’s place in the United States, the 14th Amendment was created as an explicit, constitutional reversal of Dred Scot.
So, as Trump sparks debate over the “spirit” of the 14th Amendment — particularly over the five words, “subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” we can’t humor him or mislead his base of supporters. The law has been clear, such as in its ruling in the United States v. Wong Kim Ark, that it protects the citizenship of both people born in and to U.S. parents. So while Trump may think this idea is a way to stir up his base before an election, it in fact hits at the soul of American values.