Citizenship: a matter of principle

After hearing this week that some Republicans in the newly-elected American House of Representatives are pushing a law to abolish the “automatic citizenship” clause in the United States Constitution, preventing children of illegal immigrants from receiving American citizenship, I came to a rather odd realization. Republicans are always talking about the “founding fathers” and the sanctity of the great American Constitution. And they like the amendments too. They’d just like to tweak the ones that apply to women, dark-skinned people or gays.

The hypocrisy is astounding. Republicans, it seems, are selective in their love for their defining document. They think the first amendment is awesome, just disregard that part about religion and government being separate and enjoy the fact that you can yell the n-word on the radio. The second amendment is cool too — that’s the one that supposedly guarantees gun ownership. But once they get to the ones that are used to enhance the rights of the previously un-represented — you know, the ones that deal with scary people with dark skin and accents or damned, uppity women, they get a little cagey.

The fourteenth amendment to the American Constitution was adopted in 1868. Its focus was on the recently freed slaves of the South, but its reach was massive: “no state shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” This meant that all citizens, including newly freed slaves, could not have their rights reduced by any of the states and that all people (it does not specify a sex) are equal under the law. It’s kind of a big deal.

The equal protection part of the law was later used to defend other disadvantaged groups in the United States, specifically women. But many Republicans don’t like this “interpretation.” Last week, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was quoted suggesting that the fourteenth really shouldn’t apply to women and that it “does not extend to protecting women against sex discrimination.” His logic is that the people who wrote the amendment weren’t thinking of women specifically when they wrote it and therefore, if a state chose to pass a law that discriminated against women, that it “would not be unconstitutional.”

Now, needless to say, illegal immigration is wrong and a crime. But the principle of the fourteenth amendment seems pretty clear: the law must be applied to all. It cannot be selective. It is not about black or white (or brown), it is not about man or woman. It’s simple: everyone in America is equal under the law and everyone born in America is a citizen. Period. No interpretation necessary. Certainly no retroactive Scalian-psychological analysis where an attempt is made to discern what was in the mind of the people that wrote it.

What these Republican lawmakers (and Scalia) are really talking about is abridging the rights of certain people in the United States. Believe me, they aren’t “thinking of” the Canadian couple that have their child while shopping at the Mall of America — they are thinking of scary Mexicans who represent all that is wrong in contemporary America. This is legislative racism, pure and simple. They want to “interpret” the words of the document that they profess to cherish in order to reduce the rights of people they don’t like. That a dangerous first step. And a very hypocritical one.

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