And they’re speaking out against the bizarre proposal to amend the Constitution to deny citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants born in the United States. James Ayana, the son of undocumented Mexican immigrants (and Regents Professor at the University of Arizona Rogers College of Law, and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples), Gabriel Chin, the son of a Chinese immigrant who entered the United States under false pretenses when law banned immigration from China (and Chester H. Smith Professor of Law at the University of Arizona Rogers College of Law, and Paul Finkelman, whose Polish grandfather snuck into the US via Canada (and who is President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany Law School and a Senior Fellow at the Government Law Center) write at the Huffington Post that the suggestion is un-American and nonsensical.
In fact, denying citizenship seems very American indeed–not only in light of the restrictions that made the authors’ parents and grandparents undocumented entry into the country, or the notorious Dred Scott case the authors note, but also because of the groundswell of contemporary anger about so-called illegal aliens. More persuasive is the argument that efforts to exclude based on race (and yes, if the Constitution were changed in this way the effect would be, basically, to deny citizenship to Hispanic kids) rarely work as intended and we usually regret them later.
It’s likely that this whole thing will blow over, as will the effort to deep-six the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” which is of course neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque (the AP has finally told its reporters to stop calling it that). The election cycle will reboot and we will return to old canards about taxes, instead of the race-and-religion-baiting that brings angry voters to the polls. We must hope that this waning will clear space for the neo-Know Nothing movement to abate just as its ideological forebears did in the 1850s, fading into obscurity as its members squawked about the dangers of German immigrants.
The difference may be, though, that while the Know Nothings split over slavery, today’s Know Nothings appear firmly united on the race question–they’re hostile to African Americans, angry about Latino immigration, and suspicious of people from the Middle East. The Tea Party (party? movement?) has pushed back on accusations of racism, but it’s a largely white movement obsessed with losing control overly formerly all-white institutions, like the White House.
It is bizarre, though, that their response in this case is the further bureaucratization of already-arcane immigration law (see this example: an Oregon teen who entered the US illegally as a toddler and was adopted by Americans faced deportation), letting evil government pencil-pushers, or the ubiquitous judicial activists we hear so much about, rather than a Constitutional Amendment that has for a long time stood at the center of American self-definition, decide who’s in and who’s out. As Finkelman, Ayana, and Chin write, the simple principle at the core of the Amendment “limited the risk of tragic mistakes.” And with things where they are today, when we seem awash in tragic mistakes, that seems about as much as we can hope for.