Americans are now diligently filling out their census forms, a once every decade tradition which causes nervousness among immigrants.
Many -- documented or undocumented -- are leery of filling out paperwork, lest authorities use the census information to arrest anyone not born in the United States.
Already, the Alliance for Legal Immigration, and other anti-immigrant groups, have been accused of supporting the use of census data to target newcomers.
In short, convincing immigrants to participate in the census is already challenge. So imagine what it would be like 20 or 30 years down the road if prominent columnist and pundit George Will, as well as a growing number of activists, get their way.
“A simple reform,” the famously bow-tied and bespectacled Will wrote in a recent Washington Post column, “would drain some scalding steam from the immigration arguments that may soon again be roiling to a boil.”
Will, citing a provocative article in the Texas Review of Law and Politics, wants to review the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This grants American citizenship to every child born within the borders of the United States, even if their parents are undocumented.
“To end the practice of ‘birthright citizenship,’” Will writes, “all that is required is to correct the misinterpretation of that amendment's first sentence … from these words has flowed the practice of conferring citizenship on children born here to illegal immigrants.”
The 14th Amendment begins, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside."
Will argues that these words, written in the late 1860s, actually had nothing to do with immigration.
“The authors … could not have intended birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants because in 1868 there were and never had been any illegal immigrants because no law ever had restricted immigration,” Will writes.
It is true that the federal government did not technically begin regulating immigration until the 1870s. But based on this, Will goes on to make a very questionable leap.
“If those who wrote and ratified the 14th Amendment had imagined laws restricting immigration -- and had anticipated huge waves of illegal immigration -- is it reasonable to presume they would have wanted to provide the reward of citizenship to the children of the violators of those laws? Surely not.”
The trouble is, America actually had undergone a massive immigration wave in the 1840s. The Famine Irish (as well as millions of Germans) came to the U.S. (many crossing the border from Canada) and changed that nature of American life in far more comprehensive ways than current immigrants.
The impact of 19th century immigration was plainly evident to the likes of the anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party as well as pro-immigrant Tammany Hall.
How could Will believe the authors of the 14th Amendment could not possibly have “anticipated huge waves of illegal immigration?”
Meanwhile, though an 1875 Supreme Court case (Henderson vs. the Mayor of the City of New York) transferred immigration regulation from states to the federal government, that does not mean the feds had not dabbled in anti-immigrant policy.
The notorious Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were aimed at the French as well as their revolution-minded Irish Catholic supporters. If President John Adams figured out how to use the federal government to target immigrants, how come the authors of the 14th Amendment could not have some six decades later?
If George Will’s history is off, it’s because he’s not interested in the past.
He wants to cut immigration right now because, as he sees it, immigrants continue to flock to America solely for the generous social welfare benefits. (Such as health care, right?)
Even if that analysis were true, denying citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants would not prevent them from coming here in the first place. It would only further expand the American ethnic underclass.
When that happens, good luck running a census every 10 years.
(Tom Deignan will be discussing “20 Books Every Irish American Should Read” at the mid-Manhattan branch library, 455 Fifth Avenue, April 17, and at the Riverdale, Bronx branch library on April 22. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/tomdeignan.)