Related: Civil & Human Rights, Social Issues, Social Justice Issues

Tracing Citizenship's Roots




Christopher Columbus did not go through Ellis Island in 1492.  He came right across the southern border.

Refugees from the oppressive monarch in Britain — otherwise known as Pilgrims — who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 did not register with the INS.

Africans dragged to these shores in chains did not get documents to prove their lineage.

Surely among the suffering hordes of Irishmen fleeing the potato famine in the late 19th century were at least a few lads who may not have completed all of their paperwork before settling into tenements on the lower East side, cadging whatever jobs they could, surviving appalling conditions while creating increasingly large families who, two or three generations later, are among the wealthiest and most powerful ethnic groups in this nation — but most Irish Americans do not think of themselves as “ethnic” except on a certain day in March.

Unless we are Native Americans, most of us are the heirs of immigrants to the United States.   Our parents or grandparents or great-grands became U.S. citizens perhaps through naturalization, but more likely through the happy coincidence of birth on these shores.   Whether their parents were fully documented immigrants may be an interesting research question.

The current controversy over illegal immigration, raging now in Arizona but simmering in many other states including Virginia, has an overarching tone of righteousness on the part of people who might want to check their own pedigrees.   American citizens of European ethnic descent need to remember their own roots and be more large-hearted and generous toward those brother and sister human beings who often risk everything for the still-vibrant American Dream.   Those citizens whose own ancestors risked everything to get on those boats, survived the perilous passages eke out meagre livings through the first generation do this nation no service by denying other human beings the right to live here peacefully and safely.

The latest amnesia suffered by the heirs of previous immigrant generations is the movement afoot to revoke the Constitutional right of citizenship for people born in the United States.   Last night on television I heard Senator Lindsay Graham assert his view that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which extends birthright citizenship, should be repealed.   He has said, “Birthright citizenship I think is a mistake…We should change our Constitution and say if you come here illegally and you have a child, that child’s automatically not a citizen….People come here to have babies…They come here to drop a child. It’s called “drop and leave. To have a child in America, they cross the border, they go to the emergency room, have a child, and that child’s automatically an American citizen. That shouldn’t be the case. That attracts people here for all the wrong reasons.”

Now, mind you, this is the same Senator Graham whose defense of the Second Amendment right to guns went so far as to say that any effort to limit gun ownership, including prohibitions on terrorists and criminals owning guns, would be unconstitutional.

Selective interpretation of the U.S. Constitution is an American sport, to be sure, but a dangerous tendency among those who take oaths to uphold the Constitution.

Washington Post Columnist E.J. Dionne has an excellent commentary on the birthright citizenship issue in today’s paper.   He points out the inconsistency in the philosophy of lawmakers and others who also vigorously defend pro-life positions while wanting to strip babies of fundamental rights because their parents do not have citizenship documents.

Is immigration a mess?  Yes.   Should we allow people to be here who furtively come across our borders?  That’s not the right question.  “Furtively” becomes a necessity for some because the policies and procedures currently in place for legal immigration are ineffective.   Yes, of course, people who want to be in this nation should follow the laws.   But when the laws are broken, people make other choices in order to be able to live.

We who are the heirs of the great diasporas of prior generations should approach the need for immigration reform with our values in the right place.   The most important value is to treat all human beings with respect and decency.   Surely there is a way to achieve state and federal goals for the regulation of immigration without degrading the humanity of the human lives at stake.   And, with human respect as the basic premise, surely no legal policy should strip constitutional rights from babies.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: