The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.
Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
Immigration reform is likely to be President Obama’s next major legislative battle and all sides are gearing up for a fight. In that context, I received the following email (reprinted in its entirety) from some sociology colleagues around the country in response to a recent commentary by conservative columnist George Will.
Response to George Will on the Birthright Citizenship of Children of Undocumented Immigrants
As immigration scholars, we beg to disagree with George Will’s argument (Washington Post, Sunday March 28, A15) that “the simple” solution to unauthorized immigration is a re-interpretation of the 14th Amendment’s citizenship clause to end birthright citizenship for children of unauthorized immigrants. This position, which resurfaces every few years, is a-historical, and inconsistent with constitutional principle and with American values.
“Birthright citizenship” refers to the principle of granting citizenship to any person born within the United States. This practice is derived from the first section of the 14th Amendment, which states that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”
Mr. Will, leaning heavily on an article by Lino Graglia, argues that there are three main reasons why this clause does not apply to children of undocumented immigrants: 1) unauthorized entry was a non-issue in 1868 because there were no immigration restrictions when the Amendment was written; 2) undocumented immigrants enter the country without the consent of the U.S. and thus can neither be construed to be “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” nor to owe allegiance to this country; 3) American Indians were excluded from birthright citizenship because they were considered members of autonomous tribes that did not owe allegiance to the U.S. All three claims are incorrect in their interpretation of the historical record.
Mr. Will’s assertion that the U.S. had no immigration restrictions prior to 1868 is false. Congress passed prohibitions against the slave trade in 1808. Because traders ignored the prohibition, this relegated imported slaves to the category of an “illegal commodity” if not an “illegal alien.” States and localities had also been enacting restrictions on immigration since colonial times. States had “pauper laws” targeted at immigrants from Europe and many later introduced head taxes to discourage the entry of poor Europeans. Wouldn’t individuals who evaded quarantine laws or head taxes most likely qualify as “illegal aliens” in modern parlance?
In Mr. Will’s interpretation of the 14th Amendment, the phrase “the jurisdiction thereof” excludes immigrants because as foreigners they do not owe allegiance to the U.S. government. However, the text of the Amendment does not require “allegiance”; it simply speaks of “jurisdiction.” Furthermore, the two terms do not have the same meaning as Mr. Will implies. In fact, Senator Cowen (R-PA) explicitly opposed the Amendment on the grounds that it would turn into U.S. citizens the children of people who “owe [my state] no allegiance; who pretend to owe none …”
As Harvard Law Professor Gerald Neuman notes in his book Strangers to the Constitution, being “subject to the jurisdiction” of the U.S., did encompass the vast majority of non-citizens, including undocumented immigrants. In fact, being “subject to the jurisdiction” of the U.S. means no more than being subject to the laws and rules of the U.S. government. As Justice Scalia has noted, when Congress says that a group of people are subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S., this means that Congress “has made clear its intent to extend its laws [to this group].” Surely, Mr. Will would be the first to admit that regardless of their immigration status, foreigners are subject to U.S. laws and expected to comply with them.
Kwaachund (Mohican for “chutzpah”) best describes Mr. Will’s comparison of the exclusion of “Indians not taxed” in 1787 or 1868 to birthright citizenship of children in the U.S. today. He forgets that American Indians were here first, and that the Constitution of 1787 and the 14th Amendment of 1868 acknowledged precedence for Native people by recognizing the sovereignty of tribes over their members, that is, “Indians not taxed.” This is not the same as a fear on the part of the United States in 1868 that American Indians had a “divided allegiance” to some foreign power, as Mr. Will says.
The U.S. insisted that American Indians recognize federal political supremacy through an allegiance clause in the many treaties signed with tribes up to 1871. The State of Georgia in the 1820s sought to abrogate one such treaty and have the Cherokee Nation described as “aliens, not owing allegiance to the United States.” In 1831, Justice Marshall famously rejected Georgia’s formulation and postulated that American Indian tribes were “domestic dependent nations.”
Neither Will nor Graglia are the first (and probably not the last) to argue that a “simple solution” to undocumented immigration is the repeal of birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. Yet, it is important for readers to note that this “solution” is neither “simple” nor consistent with the principles and values embedded in the Constitution. As Professor Neuman states, “[the authors of the 14th Amendment] refused the invitation to create a hereditary caste of voteless denizens, vulnerable to expulsion and exploitation.” Contemporary scholars, politicians and pundits will do well to heed this advice.
Alexandra Filindra, Ph.D.
Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions
Donna R. Gabaccia, Ph.D.
Director, Immigration History Research Center, University of Minnesota
Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair of Immigration History Research and Fesler-Lampert Chair in the Public Humanities (2009-2010)
Immigration History Research Center
James W. Oberly, Ph.D.
Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
Professor, Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs University of Minnesota
Rubén G. Rumbaut
Professor of Sociology, University of California, Irvine
 Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line Ltd., 125 S. Ct. 2169, 2194-95 (2005) (Scalia dissenting).
To summarize my colleagues’ excellent arguments, denying citizenship rights to children born in the U.S. of unauthorized immigrant parents is not a “simple” way to address the larger issue of why such immigrants come to the U.S. Whether conservatives like George Will can recognize or accept it, and as several recent books explain in more detail, ultimately there are a variety of institutional and economic factors and causes that have nothing to their children being citizens.
In fact, the argument that denying citizenship to certain groups is a good idea is (1) based on incorrect historical and constitutional assumptions and (2) only reinforces our nation’s history of selective discrimination and exclusion that has formed the foundation for many of the social divisions in our society today.
So like I said, in terms of immigration reform, selectively denying citizenship is an example of what not to do.
A common theme in many of my recent posts has been the backlash among many White Americans against various demographic, cultural, political, economic, and globalized changes taking place in American society and the world in general. As their percentage of the U.S. population continues to shrink, as non-Whites become increasingly prominent in our society (represented at the very top by Barack Obama), and with the recession heightening their fears and insecurities, many White Americans have reacted angrily to their traditional “way of life” being threatened.
I don’t really enjoy writing about such incidents and would really like to let it go and instead, focus on more positive aspects of American society moving forward in the 21st century. But unfortunately, these kinds of racist backlash keep happening over and over again. The latest example involves Meb Keflezighi, an Eritrean American who recently won the New York City Marathon. This video clip from MSNBC focuses on his well-earned victory:
Unfortunately, as the New York Times reports, his victory has also led to charges that his victory should not really count as an “American” victory because he is not “really” American:
He was widely celebrated as the first American to win the New York race since 1982. Having immigrated to the United States at age 12, he is an American citizen and a product of American distance running programs at the youth, college and professional levels. But, some said, because he was born in Eritrea, he is not really an American runner. . . .
The online postings about Keflezighi were anonymous. One of the milder ones on Letsrun.com said: “Give us all a break. It’s just another African marathon winner.”
A comment on The New York Times’s site said: “Keflezighi is really another elite African runner by birth, upbringing, and training. Americans are kidding themselves if they say he represents a resurgence of American distance prowess! On the other hand, he is an excellent representative of how we import everything we need!”
In a commentary on CNBC.com, Darren Rovell wrote, “Nothing against Keflezighi, but he’s like a ringer who you hire to work a couple hours at your office so that you can win the executive softball league.”
To clarify, Keflezighi came to the U.S. at the age of 12, so he is part of what sociologists tend to call the “1.5” generation — immigrants who came to the U.S. at age 12 or younger and who were raised, socialized, and educated primarily within American society. As the NY Times article also notes, he is “a product of American distance running programs at the youth, college and professional levels.”
The question becomes, if Keflezighi is not a “real” American, then what exactly are the qualifications of being a “real” American?
Apparently, coming to the U.S. at a young age and being raised and educated in the U.S. doesn’t qualify one as a “real” American. Neither does being a naturalized citizen. And according to many, being born in the U.S. is not enough to qualify someone as a “real” American either, as many Asian Americans will attest to, having their loyalties questioned, challenged, and attacked.
We need to call it for what it is — White racism, plain and simple.
The sad fact is, for many Americans, unless you are White, you will never be a “real” American. That includes non-White or -European immigrants and U.S.-born racial minorities. This institutional mentality has a long tradition throughout American history. Perhaps the best example that comes to mind is the Cherokee Nation.
In the early 1800s, with Whites encroaching on their traditional lands in the south, the Cherokees were basically told that if they wanted to physically survive, they had to discard their “savage” ways and become Americanized. The Cherokees proceeded to do just that and completely changed their way of life — they learned English as well as romanized their traditional language, began wearing “American” clothing, set up a bicameral governing structure based on Congress’s model, and changed their economy from one based on hunting to one focused on farming and trading.
But in the end, their efforts were in vain because they basically learned that despite their actions, since they were not White, they could never be American. The Cherokee were subsequently evicted from their lands and in the infamous “Trail of Tears” episode of American history, forcibly marched from northwestern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee one thousand miles westward. Along the way, about 25% of the estimated 15,000 who started died from starvation, disease, exhaustion, or were murdered before finally reaching the Oklahoma territory and their newly-established “reservations.”
Even though non-Whites may display all the “normal” characteristics and behaviors of a “typical” American — being fluent in English, getting a good education and a good job, owning a nice house in the suburbs, paying taxes, voting in elections, attending Christian churches, going to ballgames and having backyard barbecues — unless you are White, your identity as a “real” American will inevitably be challenged in one way or another.
Often, naturalized Americans have done more to establish their “American-ness” than those who are American by accident of birth. Which isn’t to say that naturalized Americans are more American than domestically-born Americans; being American isn’t a question of degrees. Instead, it’s simple math: one is or one isn’t American.
As I’ve said before, change does not come easily and without resistance of one kind or another and unfortunately, this anti-immigrant and anti-minority backlash will exist for the foreseeable future.
Here are some more announcements and links out that have come my way relating to Asians or Asian Americans. As always, links to other sites are provided for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply an endorsement of their contents:
After a year interlude, SERCAAL, the Southeast Regional Conference of Asian American Leaders, returns to the University of Florida for another unforgettable conference!
SERCAAL was created with the goal of education and spreading Asian Pacific American awareness in mind. The conference is dedicated to addressing issues and topics specific to the APA community in the Southeastern region. We also encourage networking between the next generations of active leaders and hope to attract students from all kinds of backgrounds, hoping to provide an opportunity for students to learn from established leaders and activists who have all initiated change.
Our conference will be held October 9th-10th and our theme this year is “Collaborate, Challenge, Change.” The theme reflects our mission to initiate a commonality of issues pertaining to our generation and what can be done in our community today through preparation of students to take the initiative.
The Mentored Path to Citizenship is a $675 naturalization grant to provide assistance to a qualified individual in L.A. County seeking U.S. citizenship. This one-time grant will provide financial assistance towards application fees, while also giving the recipient the opportunity to receive assistance from the Asian Pacific American Legal Center throughout the application process.
All interested individuals are asked to complete a written application which may be found below or available by calling the office at (213) 250-9888. Applicants must show proof of residency in Los Angeles County and demonstrate eligibility to become a U.S. citizen. Viable candidates will be interviewed in a confidential screening process by OCA-GLA with assistance by APALC.
For further questions, please contact OCA-GLA’s office at (213) 250-9888. Written inquiries may be sent to 1145 Wilshire Blvd., 1st Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90017 and emails may be directed to email@example.com. The deadline to submit applications will be September 25, 2009.
The Advancing Justice Conference, being held on October 29-30, 2009 at The Center at Cathedral Plaza in Los Angeles, CA, is an inaugural national civil rights and social justice conference, expected to draw several hundred individuals from across the country.
The conference aims to bring together a diverse group of stakeholders in one place to address a broad range of issues facing the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. It serves as a unique forum where researchers, advocates, direct service providers and other leaders can meet face-to-face, talk about their common challenges and find ways to work collaboratively.
Taking place over two days, the conference covers a variety of issues including: immigration reform and enforcement, immigrant integration, human rights, civil rights and national security, health care, Census 2010, redistricting, low-wage workers, hate crimes, and LGBT rights. It also includes presentations on corporate and foundation fundraising, new media, community organizing, board and commission participation, capacity building, and intergroup collaboration.
The Advancing Justice Conference is a joint project by the Asian American Institute (Chicago), Asian American Justice Center (Washington, D.C.), Asian Law Caucus (San Francisco) and Asian Pacific American Legal Center (Los Angeles). To learn more and to register, visit advancingjustice.org.
The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity is pleased to announce the Call for Proposals for its second biannual conference, entitled Transforming Race: Crisis and Opportunity in the Age of Obama, to be held March 11-13, 2010, in Columbus, Ohio.
We seek innovative proposals that address any of three thematic tracks: Racial Dynamics and Systems Thinking; Race Talk; and Race, Recession, and Recovery. We invite practitioners, community organizers, scholars, researchers, and others to submit proposals for papers, entire panels, workshops, performances, fishbowls, and more!
Please visit our web site, http://transforming-race.org, for conference details and updates. To encourage widespread participation, please feel free to share this e-mail and attachment with your networks. Should you have any questions, contact Rebecca Reno at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity
The Ohio State University
414 Mendenhall Laboratory
125 South Oval Mall
Columbus, OH 43210
Tel: (614) 688-5429
Fax: (614) 688-5592
Web site: http://www.kirwaninstitute.org/