What does the 14th Amendment really mean with regard to "birthright citizenship?" Tough to say. Even the men who wrote and passed the amendment in 1868 weren't in full agreement on that point.
The amendment says that "all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof" are citizens." But the legislative debate over that language was fierce - some senators argued it surely didn't mean that children of American Indians or gypsies or Chinese would be granted the same citizenship as white people.
Other senators - notably John Conness of California - believed otherwise.
"The children of all parentage whatever, born in California, should be regarded and treated as citizens of the United States, entitled to equal civil rights with other citizens," Conness said.
The debate continues today. But birthright citizenship - a long American tradition - should continue.
Why? For one thing, it's a matter of simple humanity. Denying citizenship to a child born here would inevitably mean that millions of young people - after having lived here their entire lives, and thus American to the bone - would someday be deported to "home" countries and cultures alien to them. They would be paying a penalty for their parents' crimes. That's just cruel.
What's more, ending birthright citizenship could prove burdensome to all Americans. Other than your birth certificate-assuming you were born here-what proof do you possess that you're an American citizen? Until now, that is all that's been needed. The potential for bureaucratic mischief is enormous.
The people who want to end birthright citizenship would be in the business of telling many Americans they aren't really Americans after all. That would be ugly, divisive and unnecessary. There are better ways to address the issue of illegal immigration.
What I didn't say (for space reasons) is that for more than a century, Americans have lived under the common understanding that -- generally speaking -- to be born here is to be a citizen here. Anti-immigration crusaders who want to challenge that understanding of the 14th Amendment, it seems, are trying to remake American custom without remaking the American law it springs from. (There's no movement afoot, really, to amend the amendment -- only to reinterpret it.) Given continuing complaints from conservatives about "judicial activism," this seems a wee hypocritical.
In any case, the column brought me this e-mail from a Florida reader:
Since the squabble over Passports for the Iroquois LACROSSE TEAM. Would they be a separate nation, the Iroquois Nation and NOT US citizens (by birth) since they consider themselves NOT under the jurisdiction of the United States?
It would seem that since they feel they are not under the jurisdiction of the US according to treaty, they must APPLY for US citizenship.
Without going into details of the Iroquois passport dispute, I'll just note that the 14th Amendment was actually constructed to exclude American Indians from automatic citizenship -- if you delve into the debate that took place at the time, it's apparent that the arguments then against birthright citizenship in the 14th Amendment were explicitly racist -- but that the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 means that American Indians do have that citizenship. If they want it.
In any case, I can imagine that the Iroquois and other native tribes might also be against a policy that lets the children and further descendants of European immigrants claim citizenship here. I can't say I'd blame them.