Ringside at the Apocalypse

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JANUARY 30, 2011 8:02AM

Let's Have a Real Debate on Citizenship

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There is a debate on citizenship that conservatives want to have.  There is another debate on citizenship that some progressives are trying to have--so far, typically, without much success.  There are arguments to be made, both good and bad, in both debates.  I say we should have them both.

First, the conservative argument--which can be summed up in the closet racist and blatantly inhumane phrase “anchor baby.”  Ironically, given their supposed reverence for the U.S. Constitution, teabaggers and their conservative fellow travellers have expressed an enthusiastic willingness to tamper with one of the core tenets of American society:  the concept, as stated in the Constitution and reinforced by the 14th Amendment, that anyone born on American soil is, indeed, an American.  Their reason for doing so?  The fact that an increasing number of those native born Americans happen to be the offspring of people who happen to be in this country illegally.  What anyone with a heart and a mind sees as a consequence of human beings attempting to make a life for themselves under adverse conditions, they see as a deliberate criminal effort by “illegals” to swindle American taxpayers by acquiring social services for which they are otherwise  unqualified through the good graces of their newly-born citizen offspring.

This is as fundamentally inhuman and wrong-headed as the assertion (not surprisingly, often from the same people) that being homosexual is a matter of conscious choice.  It shows a shocking lack of empathy for one’s fellow humans to suppose than someone chooses on a whim a sexual preference that can get you randomly killed on a street corner in a lot of places, render you ineligible for military service, and render virtually impossible the ability to enter into a legally recognized state of loving commitment with the person of your choice.  It shows an equal lack of empathy to suppose that anyone would endure the extraordinary risks and dangers of traveling to this country illegally (frequently through the good graces of coyotes who will kill or abandon their clients in a heartbeat, should the need arise) and live in constant danger of deportation...merely to acquire a fraudulent welfare check.

Unfortunately, as heartless and wrong-headed as they are, these fair weather constitutionalists do have a point:  no other industrialized nation on earth has as liberal a concept of citizenship as the United States, and there is, indeed, a social cost to that liberality.  Canada, for example, has public health care and other social services that Americans would kill for and often die for lacking--but unless you speak English AND French, have an education, and an employer, you are NOT going to legally emigrate to Canada.   

Nor are you likely to be employed as an illegal immigrant--which is really the point, and the real issue that quack notions like “anchor babies” are intended to distract from.  If we don’t want people in this country illegally, all we really have to do is leverage punitively expensive measures against individuals and corporations that provide employment to undocumented workers.  We don’t have to change the constitution, we don’t have to deport newborn infants.  We just have to be willing to sanction the hell out of those who exploit illegal immigrants (and maybe accept the idea of national ID card...but that’s really part  of a different discussion).

Consider for a moment that phrase, “individuals and corporations”.  It leads us into the second emerging debate on citizenship, the one that conservatives and corporate-owned mainstream media don’t want you to hear about...or think about.

In a recent article entitled “Walmart is not a Person” (excepted from a forthcoming book), commentator and author Thom Hartmann made the entirely reasonable argument that the best way to undo the damage of the Citizen United Decision might be to close the legal loophole granting corporations First Amendment protection in the first place.  The means of doing so?  An amendment that explicitly defines the Bill of Rights as “humans only”-- in other words, to make it a matter of established law that not Walmart, Exxon-Mobil, AT&T or any other artificial legal construct enjoys the rights of U.S. citizenship.

The tricorn hat crowd should love this.  The word “corporation” does not appear once in the original Constitution they treat as inerrant holy writ, and there is ample evidence (as Hartmann points out) that the Founding Fathers harbored a deep suspicion and resentment toward such entities.  That resentment boiled over in the lead-up to the American Revolution as the REAL “Tea Party”--an event in which an insurrectionist gang wearing identity-concealing disguises destroyed over $2,000,000.00 (in current dollars) worth of property belonging to a multinational corporation.  So... people who like to compare themselves to the Founding Fathers should be all over dismantling corporate power, right?  

Don’t count on it.  For all of the powdered-wig posturing and supposed reverence for the ideals that produced the American Revolution, the various groups that make up the “tea party movement” have never really been about anything else but making sure that the election of 2008 would be nothing more than a speed-bump in the path of the corporate/state power consolidation set into motion during the Bush Presidency.  The people who show up at the rallies may be hapless bumpkins, gun nuts, and racist buffoons...the people who pay for the events are about as hapless as Dick Cheney.

Let’s not forget that the core issue in the “Citizen United” case  was whether or not the right-wing front group of the same name was free to advertise a hatchet job film about Hillary Clinton in violation of the McCain-Feingold Act.  And now, thanks to the most reactionary right-wing Supreme Court in U.S. history, McCain-Feingold is history--and corporations now have a first amendment right to spend as much money as it takes to subvert as many elections as it takes to get what they want.   The modern corporation was essentially created in 1886 as a workaround to subvert legal restrictions on large concentrations of wealth.  It has worked quite well.  The plutocracy of majority corporate shareholders who effectively run this country are not likely to give it up without one hell of a fight.

Just as attempts to deliver average Americans from the predations of an out-of-control healthcare system have been successfully relabeled  as “socialism”, efforts at limiting the ability of large corporations to subvert U.S. democracy can expect to be slandered as  “attacks on free enterprise” and worse.  Not that it matters very much: any anticipation that the American progressive movement is going to be any more adept at fighting back against creeping corporate fascism than they have been to date is highly optimistic.

Just for argument’s sake, though, how about we have a real debate on citizenship?  If it is acceptable to put parts of the Constitution on the table for purposes of restricting the citizenship of actual humans, it ought to be just as acceptable to consider restricting the “citizenship” abused by corporations on behalf of the relative handful of humans who directly profit from their existence.

A constitutional amendment can be many things, address many things.  Citizenship is just one of several issues addressed in the 14th Amendment in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, although it is certainly the most important.  The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment guaranteed that the slavery that African-Americans had been delivered from at great cost would not merely re-emerge in a different form.  It states unequivocally that any person “born or naturalized” in the United States is a citizen and cannot be deprived of their fundamental rights by any state or local jurisdiction, for any reason.  If you are born in America, you are, simply,  an American.

These same protections ensured the status of children born to the immigrants who flooded into this country in the Civil War’s aftermath.  Those immigrants, their children, the subsequent immigrants (for as long as we would take them)... they helped build the greatest expansion of industrial power and prosperity the world has ever seen.  If there is any true basis for the notion of “American Exceptionalism” it is that accomplishment--that a nation was made of peoples of many nations, and that of that diversity came greatness.

It can be fairly argued that this expansive and uniquely American notion of citizenship and nationhood is a luxury this country can no longer afford.  Possibly so.  America is not what it once was.  What worked for a country that had for all its history been its own frontier may not work for a country that is now as thoroughly constrained as any of the “Old World” nations of Europe.

But it can also be fairly argued that this country has lost its way and become divided against itself as thoroughly as has ever been the case since the Civil War.  It is very doubtful that the current tensions will escalate to a war between states (not least because the divisions run equally through every state, and the entire country), but very reasonable to assume that healing these divisions may very well require measures as sweeping as the post-Civil War Reconstruction.

The so-called “Reconstruction Amendments” addressed long-standing shortcomings in America’s original founding documents, and established new definitions of nationhood and citizenship.  A new round of redefinition may well now be in order, as well as a little more honesty.  There is a fundamental unfairness and hypocrisy to an immigration policy that turns a blind eye to the exploitation of undocumented workers, only to ritualistically scapegoat the victims on the eve of elections.  Equally hypocritical, if more well-meaning: the notion that anyone has an inalienable right to parent children that neither they nor anyone else can afford to support, either in a host country or the place of their birth.  The world is not inexhaustible.

Nor is the patience of those who have been and continue to be exploited. The “citizenship” and supposed inalienable rights of corporations have been used to created what is rapidly becoming the wealthiest oligarchy in human history.  Their wealth comes at the expense of undermining the core democratic values of an American society to which they give astonishingly little in return.  Sooner or later, one way or another, that issue will be addressed.  

The Tea Party Movement is an elaborate fraud, the latest re-invention of Harry Dent’s “Southern Strategy”, but the resentments it exploits go beyond the anxieties created by the country’s first African-American President.  In an increasingly pluralistic country, the issues of race, religion, and sexual identity the Republican Party has used to militate Americans against their own interests will lose power.  Unless the staggering inequality in this country is reversed, the next “tea party” may have a lot less interest in cosplay reenactments of the last revolution... and a lot more interest in a real revolution of their own.

So, yeah...let’s have a real debate on what it means to be an American and who (and what) gets to claim citizenship.  And let’s do it now...while America still exists; while that citizenship still has some measure of value.

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I see you're from Texas; I am from Louisiana. I agree with you on all points. There have been times in my life when I was ashamed to say I was from the south - re: Southern Strategy," but I figured you can't change anything for the better if you walk away from it! Kudos to you.
Great post, but I'll add another thought about the 14th Amendment. The challenges to equal protection go much deeper than "anchor babies." The people challenging it want to be able to deny equal protection to any group of people they don't like. They'd love to re-institute segregation, for example, deny women sovereignty over our own bodies and deny gay people the right to marry the ones they love.
Opposition to illegal immigration and automatic citizenship to children born in the United States to illegal immigrants is certainly not just a conservative issue – I certainly count myself as very socially liberal.

That said, it is beyond any logical thinking to support giving citizenship to children born here to a parent (or parents) who is residing here illegally. It's a gross misinterpretation of the 14th Amendment.

An excellent analysis of this issue was prepared by Californians for Population Stabilization and is found in the “Issues” section at capsweb.org.

Also, Dr. John Eastman, the former Chapman University School of Law Dean, explains why the 14th Amendment does not give the children of illegal immigrants – or legal tourists for that matter – automatic citizenship at birth … also at capsweb.org under “CAPS Videos” which you can find on the home page.

As to your argument that not supporting this practice is somehow an indicator of lack of humanity, there's a stronger argument to be made that the country's ambivalence towards enforcing its immigration laws has created more of an inhumane situation.

Untold numbers of foreigners have risked their lives – some have died – to come to the United States illegally, often using human traffickers. By not sending a clear message that we will enforce our borders to the letter of the law and tolerate no illegal immigration, we are tacitly encouraging all forms of illegal behavior, including human trafficking. And once here, without status, these people potentially are exploited further.

As well, we’re supporting regimes in, for instance, Mexico, where policies are creating the situations that drive their most impoverished to flee. For years, we have served as a pressure release valve for Mexico, because they do not provide for their people. What we should be demanding is reform in these countries.

One thing no one who supports mass unchecked illegal immigration has been able to tell me is what’s the number? Given the vast numbers of impoverished people who are looking to improve their position worldwide, how many should come to the United States? Is it 1million a year? 2 million a year? 5 million?

The United States cannot provide for all.

In point of fact, I very much agree with you regards the inhumane situation that has been created in this country as a consequence of "ambivalence towards enforcing its immigration laws"...I just tend to favor a different solution, one touched on in my essay.

Those human traffickers we both mentioned would not exist absent a profit motive. The reason it's profitable for people to smuggle themselves and others across the U.S. border is because the United States legal system turns a blind eye to a business culture that--on every level, from massive corporations down to small businesses--exploits a permanent underclass of non-citizen labor.

The illegal immigration problem is very much the flip side of the other problem that frequently promotes calls for draconianly enforced borders, the influx of marijuana and other illegal drugs. If we just legalized drugs, the profit motive would go away and so would the gangsters. If both labor laws and immigration laws were enforced--particularly laws that put out of business businesses that exploit immigrants--a lot of the human trafficking would likewise go away. Would that halt the flow of people across the southern U.S. border? Probably not--but we certainly will not know until we try it.

Your comments show a very good grasp of the scope and specific issues of the calamity that is U.S. immigration policy--but as someone who describes themselves as "socially liberal" you seem surprisingly willing to accept the conservative notion that the answer to the problem is to turn the U.S. into even more of a police state than it has already become. Personally, I think we have already have enough cops. We just need better laws.

I appreciate your comments. I would be interested in hearing any thoughts you might have about the other part of the essay, the part dealing with the movement to remove the quasi-citizen status used and abused by U.S.-based corporations.

Cheers--and thanks again.
You've given voice to many fine arguments. There is no question that the influx of illegal immigrants has it negatives. But as I see it, this sudden obsession with Mexican illegals (when immigration had decreased over the last few years) goes deeper than concern about "anchor babies".

As you so aptly pointed out, the tea party is a reinvention of the Southern Strategy, the latest upheaval over illegal immigration (that seems to be specific to Hispanics) is a fraud as well.

Throughout history, race has been at the center of, as well as the motivation for immigration policy in this country. The very first immigration law written in this country granted naturalization to "free white persons" only.

Few people are aware that the Cherokees won a Supreme Court Case against forced emigration. The Constitution was so important, they were forced to emigrate anyway. Hence, "the Trail of Tears".
Nor did high regard for the Constitution stop Jim Crow, but indeed was the reason for it.

The Chinese were excluded from entering the United States and becoming natural citizens until World War II; because China became an ally during the war. There were always codes and quotas formulated for the purpose of maintaining a "white" dominated population.

It was President Johnson who did away with what was known as the National Origins Formula (?). All this hullabaloo about immigration is just that. If the jobs weren't available, they wouldn't come. For those who argue that we can't afford it, I tend to take the view of my 87 year old friend, "it's a damned fool that goes broke and he owns the printing press".