Why birthright citizenship should be defended

Black and white picture of Jacob M Howard, a middle-aged white man sitting in a wooden chair wearing two dark coloured jackets over a white suit with a bow tie at the neck.Last week it was announced that Donald Trump favoured ending the automatic American citizenship of anyone born in the USA, which a number of conservative politicians claimed was constitutional although it clearly violates the 14th Amendment which would likely be upheld even by a conservative Supreme Court, whether Trump attempted to do it through an executive order (which is what he has threatened) or through legislation, because its wording is absolutely clear and unambiguous. While the announcement was greeted with scorn by pretty much every progressive and mainstream voice and with scepticism by many conservative ones (Trump is not known for his knowledge of the Constitution; he has recently claimed that if Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams becomes governor of Georgia, “your Second Amendment is gone”), I saw African-American Muslim friends saying they agreed with this on Facebook, largely because they believe immigrants from Latin America and the Middle East are often preferred over African Americans and this contributes to Black Americans’ poverty. The right to citizenship by birth is something that existed in the UK until the early 1980s when it was removed. The upshot has, as you might expect, been hardship and injustice for many innocent people.

Trump was, of course, wrong (or lying) when he claimed the US was the only country in the world that gave citizenship by birth; many countries in the Western world do, including Canada. In the UK, the new law is that anyone born to a British parent (mother or father) in the UK or overseas or to parents settled in the UK (i.e. with leave to remain, not illegal entrants or tourists) is entitled to citizenship. Previously, anyone born in the UK was a citizen, but people born overseas to a British mother and a foreign father were not. The upshot is that there are many older people who were born overseas to a British mother and brought to this country when those relationships broke up and find years later that they are not citizens, as well as British-born people, usually of Caribbean parentage, whose parents migrated here in the late 70s or 80s whose older siblings are British citizens but they are not. The state has also attempted to deport people born here, with no family in their parents’ home country, back to those countries (again, usually in the Caribbean). In some countries in Europe, you have multiple generations of people born in the country who are not citizens because the government uses a “law of blood”, i.e. race, to determine citizenship (so, for example, an “ethnic German” from Russia or Romania has a right to German citizenship but someone of Turkish origin whose grandparents migrated to Germany might not). Some countries devolve decisions about citizenship to local councils which reflect local prejudices, and others use a questionnaire which may require a Muslim to denounce parts of Muslim religious law to prove that he “shares local culture”.

A common justification for removing birthright American citizenship is that it prevents families establishing themselves by the back door through “anchor babies”. In fact, the US does not give parents of such children citizenship or even a visa; the government has deported such parents, giving them the choice of leaving the child in the USA or taking them with them, and the child will have the choice to return as an adult but the parents will not be able to return. So, there is no conflict and there is no such thing in reality as an “anchor baby”. The number of children allowed citizenship by this method must be fairly small, but it is invaluable as, if a parent’s citizenship status later becomes regularised or they have other relatives who are already legal immigrants or citizens, the child is not penalised by being removed to a country they have never known. The details of this ‘policy’, whether it will apply to legal as well as illegal immigrants, have not been fleshed out but removing birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants alone will not make a huge amount of difference.

It will not be a great advantage to African-Americans if birthright citizenship is removed. To take the UK as an example again, the state has been removing people’s citizenship if they have been convicted of crimes or are deemed ‘undesirable’ due to alleged (not necessarily proven) involvement in terrorism and they have citizenship, or the right to it, elsewhere. The reactionary writer Douglas Murray has demanded that Muslims automatically be deported to the home country of a parent or grandparent if they support not only terrorism in this country any attack on western troops anywhere in the world. In the case of African Americans, they enjoy a right of abode in Ghana (and possibly other countries in Africa) and this may be used as an excuse to deport any African American convicted of a crime or otherwise deemed undesirable. Only last year the US deported an American citizen (American father, British mother) to the UK as a condition of his parole as he was also a British citizen; he had killed his girlfriend at age 16 and had spent 40 years in prison.

Nobody who is not in Trump’s core vote should trust his intentions or those of his conservative allies (some of whom were saying that removing birthright citizenship was unconstitutional a couple of years ago) on this. It is consistent with Republicans’ use of, say, a minority of fraudulent voters as an excuse to impose identity checks which make it more difficult for poorer voters to vote, because they are less likely to vote for them. It will not just be so-called anchor babies that suffer; it will be anyone they deem undesirable. It will be a stepping stone to making citizenship a kind of glorified visa rather than a confirmation that your home is your home, and it will be used as a vehicle to entrench voter suppression. No Muslim, certainly, should be cheering a proposal like this on; injustice to a group of people you resent will not mean justice for you, especially when perpetrated by a common enemy.

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