In late May of this year, the Washington State Republican Party held their 2008 convention in Spokane and adopted a party platform for the upcoming election cycle. In one particular section entitled, “Borders, Immigration, and Homeland Security”, the state GOP stake out a position in clear opposition to one of the fundamental rights protected under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, that of birthright citizenship.
The text reads, “Legal immigration can best be facilitated by a transparent, traceable, and enforceable guest worker program that does not include amnesty or birthright citizenship” (emphasis added).
This position should deeply trouble all fair-minded Americans, not just immigrants. It threatens to weaken nearly 140 years of civil rights tradition in this country and institutionalize a regressive and racist policy under the guise of defending America.
The Fourteenth Amendment – ratified in July 1868 – includes several clauses fundamental to the establishment of civil equality in this country (such as due process, equal protection, and citizenship). Enacted alongside the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in the years following the U.S. Civil War, it has served as the foundation for all manner of struggle for civil rights. Unfortunately, its history has been one of continual challenge and outright subversion by those who seek to deny the equality and dignity of people of color.
African Americans have a special understanding of how these enemies of equality operate. At every point along the struggle for civil rights – which continues today – they have continued to suffer crimes against them, ranging from denial of basic rights (such as the vote) to denial of their very right to exist (in the form of lynchings and murder). These attacks have frequently been justified and carried out through legal means (as with Jim Crow and other segregationist policies) and defended in the interests of maintaining law and order (as with racial profiling and police brutality). The message behind them all has been clear: an ongoing rejection of the equal status of blacks.
It is because of this special understanding, wrought out of a history of suffering and survival, of oppression and struggle, that African Americans should be disturbed by the Washington State GOP’s push to redefine the current reading of the Fourteenth Amendment. Birthright citizenship, as laid out in the Fourteenth Amendment, was primarily intended to extend citizenship to former slaves and their descendants. However, it has come to be legally understood as extending to all persons born within the United States, and has enabled the children of immigrants from many different places of origin and ethnicities to integrate into both the U.S. body politic and civil society. Re-definition or repeal of birthright citizenship, as the Washington State Republican Party and others propose, is an intentional step towards a more exclusive definition of citizenship, and therefore, is a move backwards in the struggle for civil rights in this state (and this country).
Recent gains by anti-immigrant and other reactionary forces provide ample evidence of the depth of this danger. Over the last few years, the federal government and several states have enacted laws requiring voters to have specific forms of documentation (a passport and/or birth certificate) of their citizenship to vote or access social services, including Medicaid. The stated purpose of these laws – according to their anti-immigrant advocates – is to protect the electoral process from undocumented immigrants who cannot prove that they are citizens, and diminish stress on the social safety net. But they have implications for a large portion of native-born U.S. citizens. According to a September 2006 report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, there are approximately 11 million native-born Americans whose citizenship is effectively undocumented under these laws. These include the poor, rural residents, and those lacking a high school diploma, as well as segments of the African American community, particularly the elderly (many of whom were born at home as a result of being barred from hospitals under segregation, and therefore, were never issued birth certificates). Their civil rights and have been placed in peril by those claiming to protect our democracy.
As African Americans, we need to begin challenging ourselves to rethink the terms of the immigration debate, the motives of the anti-immigrant movement, and what is truly at stake in the struggle for civil rights for immigrants. When we picture the “face of immigration,” we need to see not just other communities of color (excepting indigenous peoples), but our brothers and sisters from throughout the African Diaspora as well.
We need to see the immigration debate as another dimension of our struggles, not a diversion from them. We and other communities of color need to reject the myths that would place us at odds with each other, while acknowledging our diversity of experiences.
However focused or narrow this and other efforts of the anti-immigrant movement and their allies appear on their face, they hold consequences for all Americans. But they hold a particular danger for the civil equality of the poor and people of color. African Americans and all people of conscience need to recognize that when the civil rights of any of us are under attack, it is an attack on us all, and that when such attacks come, we should stand together, not only in defense of each other, but of ourselves.Marc Mazique is a member of the Seattle Which Way Forward Committee, a local African-American group that struggles against the anti-immigrant movement and other forms of institutionalized racism as part of the national Which Way Forward campaign. This article originally appeared in a shorter form in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
*Image gratefully borrowed from Eyeliam’s photostream on flickr.com/creativecommons.
(South Carolina capitol still waves the Confederate flag)