Martha Jones sets the record straight about birthright citizenship

Historians in the News
tags: citizenship, Trump, 14th Amendment, Martha Jones

Related Link Birthright citizenship is a powerful weapon against racism. That’s why we must protect it. By Martha S. Jones

This week, Michael Anton, a former national security official in the Trump administration, wrote an op-ed articlein The Washington Post saying that birthright citizenship — the longstanding principle that anyone born in the United States is a citizen — rests on a “deliberate misreading” of the 14th Amendment.

The article drew furious responses from scholars on social media and elsewhere. Among those weighing in was Martha S. Jones, a historian at Johns Hopkins University and the author of the new book “Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America.”

We talked with Dr. Jones about how the idea of birthright citizenship was created and how it connects with the debate about who belongs in America. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

The idea of “jus soli,” the right of the soil, goes back to English common law. Where does the American idea of birthright citizenship enter our political tradition?

In the United States, it is the African-American community that first begins to articulate the claim to birthright citizenship. They do it because they need it. Other folks do not.

By the 1830s, African-Americans in what we call the Colored Conventions Movementare crafting an argument that will help defend them against colonization schemes that involvetrying to get them to leave the country, and also trying to resist state “black laws” that regulate where they can travel or gather in public, whether they can go to school, own guns and so on.

They look at the Constitution, which doesn’t really define who is a citizen, but does have this clause saying that the president must be a natural-born citizen. They ask, if the president is a natural-born citizen, why aren’t we? The Naturalization Act of 1790 says that only white people can be naturalized. But there is no color line in the Constitution….

In his op-ed article, Michael Anton refers to the 1898 Wong Kim Ark case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a child born in the United States to Chinese immigrants had a right to re-enter the country. He argues that the case is irrelevant to children of illegal immigrants today. What do you think of that argument?

The argument focuses on a clause in the 14th Amendment that excludes from birthright citizenship persons not subject to “the jurisdiction of the United States.” Historically, that was intended to exclude the children of diplomats and other foreign dignitaries, and Native people, who were subject to their own sovereign nations. Anton is trying to say that children of undocumented immigrants are different from that of Wong Kim Ark, whose parents were authorized.

There is an unspoken, but I think plainly visible, racialized dimension to this argument, which I see as having developed in response to the predominance, in the 21st century, of Latino immigrants. It runs disturbingly counter to what the 14th amendment gave us, which was a route to citizenship that could not be denied by virtue of race, by virtue of descent, religion, political party, health, wealth. ...

Read entire article at NYT

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