When I was in the military in the 1970s, I heard two white soldiers talking on the rifle range. One soldier asked the other how he learned to shoot so well.
“I like shooting cans right off the fence,” the other soldier responded, adding: “Af-ri-cans, Puer-to-Ri-cans and Mex-i-cans.”
The comment came to mind when I heard Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., saying, “Birthright citizenship is a mistake,” and when he and his GOP cohorts started talking about immigrants having “anchor babies.”
“People come here to have babies,” said Graham. “They come here to drop a child. It’s called, ‘Drop and leave.’”
“Drop a child.” It’s as if he were talking about animals.
Graham says he’s considering introducing a bill to rescind Section 1 of the 14th Amendment.
Section 1 does confer citizenship on anyone born in the United States. But that’s not all it does.
The second sentence of that section says: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Also called the “due process” clause or the “equal protection” clause, this part of the 14th Amendment is the very foundation of U.S. civil rights law. The new nullifiers who talk of getting rid of Section 1 are signaling their larger purpose and are targeting all those they hold in contempt, like so many cans on the fence.
The Reconstruction-era amendment, finally adopted as part of the Constitution in 1868, ensured that former enslaved Africans and their children were U.S. citizens. Together with the 13th Amendment, which bans slavery, and the 15th, which prohibits the government from denying any citizen the right to vote on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude, the 14th Amendment is fundamental to the whole country’s long walk toward human rights and equality under the law.
For instance, the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka decision was based on the idea that the discriminatory nature of racial segregation “violates the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees all citizens equal protection of the laws.” White supremacy loomed large in the public debate during Reconstruction, and it lies just below the surface today.
Back then, opponents of the amendment talked about “public morality” being threatened by people “unfit for the responsibilities of American citizenship.” Today it’s Graham slurring immigrants as baby machines who come to America to “drop a child.”
And, incidentally, the focus on reproduction by people of color is but a twist on the long obsession with controlling black bodies.
Tampering with the citizenship provision of the 14th Amendment in any way would be devastating. Apart from creating hundreds of thousands of newly defined “illegal” persons, it would return the United States to the doctrine of the 1857 Dred Scott decision and to the hideous idea that one can never overcome the status of one’s previous condition: once a slave, always a slave; once undocumented, forever undocumented, down to one’s children and children’s children.
There may be a perverse benefit to all of this blatant nativism. It reminds us of our history, and it’s a bracing reminder that many politicians — and a lot of our fellow citizens — don’t want to consider people of color Amer-i-cans.
This article originally appeared in the August 18, 2010 edition of the Progressive.