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Constitution Day: Who Are Citizens?



Congress, in its great wisdom, established a law a number of years ago that requires colleges and universities to observe “Constitution Day” each year on September 17.  Why September 17?  Because the Constitution of the United States was first signed on September 17, 1789 by a group of 40 men collectively known as the Founding Fathers.  A lot has happened in the 226 years since Gouverneur Morris wrote the words, “We, the People of the United States…” confirming the revolution that started 13 years previously.  Over the years, the Constitution has changed with the addition of the Bill of Rights and other amendments, 27 in all, that have ensured that our most fundamental governing law is not brittle, that it grows with new awareness of the human condition in each historical moment.

Perhaps no part of the Constitution is more important or controversial than the 14th Amendment which guarantees citizenship to “All persons born or naturalized in the United States…”  This Amendment was part of the three “Reconstruction Amendments” enacted after the Civil War to ensure full citizenship for African Americans.  Section 1 of the 14th Amendment specifically repudiates the dreadful 1857 Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court that held that African Americans could not be citizens.  The 14th Amendment remediated the shameful decision in the Dred Scott case and accorded citizenship to the former slaves, African Americans and all people born in the United States.  The 14th Amendment is also the guarantor of “equal protection of the laws,” perhaps the most frequently cited principle to defeat discrimination and injustice.

Fast forward to 2015.  Immigration has been a flashpoint in U.S. society for many years, exposing a cruel undercurrent of hatred and bias against people whose languages and cultures are different from the mainstream community.  Undocumented immigrants are the topic of scandalously inflammatory speeches in the current presidential campaign, with some candidates whipping audiences into a frenzy of hatred.  “Illegals” has become one of the most shameful labels in populist rhetoric, akin to other contemptible labels about race and ethnicity.  While nearly all Americans (except Native Americans) can trace ancestry to people who immigrated to this country, the bitter tone and ugly prejudice of so much of the current anti-immigration discourse is squarely directed against Mexicans and Latinos.  Too many of today’s anti-immigrant agitators seem to forget their own ancestral struggles, that the Irish were reviled in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, that Italians were spat upon and called ugly names, that Poles and Slavs and Turks suffered much discrimination — so much so that most of the first generations of white European ethnics lived in closed communities with each other; for example, the parish structures of the Catholic Church in eastern cities were as much about protecting the ethnic communities as they were about faith.

But each immigrant group had a dream — The American Dream — and these dreamers from all around the globe made their perilous voyages and journeys to the United States with one driving hope sustaining them:  that their children would have better lives.  This IS the American Dream, and the American Way.

Sadly, in 2015, children — infants, really — are the new flashpoint for hatred.  Some politicians and pundits now want to take the right of citizenship away from babies born in this country.  They want to change the 14th Amendment to strip “anchor babies” of their rights — the disparaging term used against children born to undocumented mothers.

What do you think about these proposals to change the 14th Amendment?  Should the children of undocumented mothers also be considered undocumented and, hence, liable for deportation or other penalties?  Just who are “We, the People” in 2015?

I invite members of the Trinity community to offer your comments on this topic and other thoughts on the immigraiton controversy.  Pope Francis will be in town next week and he surely will have some comments as well!  I will post your comments on this blog with or without your name as you may wish.  Please send your comments to and tell me your name, whether you wish to be anonymous, class year, major, or if you are faculty or staff.  Please make sure your comments are written well, and try to keep to just a few paragraphs at most.

You can also offer comments by writing in the comment box below.

Thank you!  Happy Constitution Day!


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