US President Donald Trump is vowing to deliver an early Christmas present to the anti-immigration right: voiding the natural-born citizenship clause in the constitution.
For those who are unfamiliar, the constitution establishes that anyone born on US soil is an American citizen even if that person’s parents are not, a provision enacted after the Union defeated the Confederacy and slavery was abolished.
Glaringly obvious from this news is the autocratic impulse, as neither a president or the Congress can just say, “No” to a constitutional mandate.
The chain of events is likely this: Immediately upon signing an executive order, immigration lawyers will file lawsuits, and likely with the swiftness it took courts to temporarily halt Trump’s first “travel ban” this order will meet the same fate. The right-wing base will once again see themselves as a victim of liberal institutions who stand in the way of tightening immigration. The appeals process will go forward, and the case will wind up before the Supreme Court, which has a 5-4 conservative majority.
What happens there is where things get dicey. And the road that takes us here is frightening for historical reasons.
For the president to argue that those born of non-citizens in the nation are not citizens, he would have to argue that the 1857 Supreme Court decision Dred Scott v. Sandford, which held that a slave born to African-slave parents was not deemed to be a US citizen even in the slavery-free states of the North, was correctly decided.
It is not just troubling that the administration would lean on what most constitutional scholars believe to be one of the worst decisions the high court ever issued or that this is a case more or less invalidated by a constitutional amendment, but that this decision outraged abolitionists and emboldened the slave-owning states so much that the decision is widely seen as a key event leading to the Civil War.
It’s not clear that all five conservative justices would get on board with such logic, misinterpret the constitution or take the extreme step of deciding not that a law or order is unconstitutional but that a part of the constitution itself is somehow wrong or invalid. Birthright citizenship would remain, but the damage of this order would be immense. For starters, merely debating the notion that one must have a deep blood relationship to the physical soil of the United States normalises what should be an irrelevant white nationalist concept. It also lays bare the vicious anti-human impulses of those who stand against birthright citizenship. Their grievances are manifold.
They worry that if an immigrant is up before an immigration judge that the judge will be less likely to issue a deportation order if that immigrant has a citizen child. They worry also that immigrants come to the country and have a child with the idea that if they are forced to leave their children can remain, burdening the nation with a citizen of other-worldly ethnic background. Their appeals to merely secure the borders are predicated specifically on a contempt for multiculturalism.
But worse is that this crowd, which again, in a saner world should be relegated to the fringe, would be fine with federal troops rounding up people, much like DACA recipients, people who speak only English and who only know this country, and deporting them en masse. This is ethnic cleansing, defined.
Lawyers will debate the fine points of this discussion because that is their job, but for the rest of liberal society, there should be resolute resistance to even entertaining a political movement that pines for a time that led the nation to a civil war of whether blacks could be deemed inferior and kept as property.
In this sense, standing up for immigrants in 2018 in the United States is becoming a modern-day form of abolitionism, because it is premised on a defence of universal humanism in the face of a government that believes otherwise. For the resistance to carry this forward it must defend immigration not on legal or pragmatic grounds but on ethical and ideological grounds.
It’s fun to post a chart about how immigrants actually help the economy rather than cause unemployment in a conservative chat forum, but this is not why we defend immigrants and their children. We defend them because we believe that people shouldn’t be judged on the citizenship status and that, yes, we believe in immigration and, yes, we believe in religious, racial, linguistic and ethnic plurality, too.
An administration bowing to the wants of a political movement centred on ethnic cleansing cannot be out-reasoned or out-argued. An administration that believes it can simply ignore limits to its authority isn’t interested in dialectics. And so we must say this clearly – that universal humanism is not debatable – whether this threat by the president ever gets enforced or not.
Photograph courtesy of the BBC. Published under a Creative Commons license.