Hypothetically Speaking: Immigration Reform and the Threat to Citizenship

Photo: Wong Kim Ark, via Wikimedia

Photo: Wong Kim Ark, via Wikimedia

President Obama once again asked for immigration reform in last night’s State of the Union address:

… Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants. And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Real reform means strong border security, and we can build on the progress my Administration has already made – putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history, and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.
Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship – a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.
And real reform means fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy, and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.
In other words, we know what needs to be done. As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts. Now let’s get this done. Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away. …

Compare last night’s words to those on immigration reform in last year’s State of the Union address:

… I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration. That’s why my administration has put more boots on the border than ever before. That’s why there are fewer illegal crossings than when I took office. The opponents of action are out of excuses. We should be working on comprehensive immigration reform right now.

But if election-year politics keeps Congress from acting on a comprehensive plan, let’s at least agree to stop expelling responsible young people who want to staff our labs, start new businesses, defend this country. Send me a law that gives them the chance to earn their citizenship. I will sign it right away. …

Right away then, right away now. Don’t hold your breath.

The truth is no real traction on immigration reform has been made over the last year at federal level, even after an election. The far right, however, has been steadily working for the last three years at state level toward the denial of U.S. citizenship to undocumented immigrants, using Arizona SB 1070 as its initial stake in the sand. In theory, SB 1070 is the baseline model legislation from which this nationwide effort start. The long-term implications are far more complicated than they appear.

Here’s a quasi-hypothetical question, a thought experiment about U.S. citizenship by birth. Let’s assume these conditions in this case:

•  Antecedant immigrates from China to Hawaii in 1898, marries a Hawaiian citizen, acquires Hawaiian property–during the same year in which the sovereign nation of Hawaii is annexed without the consent of Hawaiians.

•  Antecedant has multiple children; the youngest is born in early 1930s while Hawaii is still a territory.

•  Youngest child goes to school on mainland while Hawaii is still a territory. Meets and marries a U.S. citizen only months after Hawaii became a state.

•  They have several children while living on the mainland after marriage.

If the far right manages to undermine United States v. Wong Kim Ark–the 1898 decision under which U.S. citizenship by birth was acknowledged–which of the people in the above scenario remain U.S. citizens?

If citizenship by birth can be denied, can they also be retroactively denied both citizenship as well as the right to own property? A number of states enacted Alien Land Laws during the early 1900s barring non-citizens from owning property. Though all but one state’s laws have been repealed, under Florida law non-citizens may yet be barred from ownership. Assuming the anti-immigration cohort undermines U.S. citizenship by birth, were the children of Chinese and Hawaiian citizens naturalized? Or can their naturalization be contested, along with rights to property ownership in Florida? Would states consider revisiting Alien Land Laws to discourage citizenship if Florida’s law remains in place?

By now you’re thinking this is all quite an unlikely set of scenarios. Let me challenge you one more time: what if all the above described my great-grandfather, grandfather, father, my natural siblings, and me? Should I take my family’s citizenship for granted?

Though President Clinton and Congress apologized in 1993 for the overthrow of the sovereign Hawaiian nation, there’s been little acknowledgment of the persistent abuse of Asian Americans rights, and Hawaiian sovereignty has been swept under the rug. If far right anti-immigrant bigots have their way at undermining the 14th Amendment and United States v. Wong Kim Ark, it’s going to take a lot more than an apology to make this mess right.

Unless it is established upfront that anyone currently recognized as a U.S. citizen will continue to maintain that status, the White House should not ask for just any immigration reform bill–especially given the GOP-heavy House of Representatives now in office.

This little exercise hasn’t begun to scratch the surface of the potential challenge. My grandfather appears to have immigrated from Canada as an infant in the early 1900s; his arrival in the states may not have been fully documented. Was he ever a truly naturalized citizen? Is my mother a U.S. citizen?

And what about your own family–when and how did they arrive in the U.S.? Will the zealous overreach of immigration reform question your own citizenship?

What’s your status? Where are your papers?

Let’s hope the threat to the citizenship status of white, English-speaking conservatives like my mother who’ve lived their entire lives in the U.S. gives xenophobic anti-immigration proponents pause.

9 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    Rubio ought to think about that question, and then ask the GOP if they really want to cut off part of their base.

    BTW, there was a naturalized Chinese man who fought in the Civil War (came to the US with the guy he’d worked for in China). After the war he went back to China and became a Christian missionary (not without problems – he had forgotten a lot of the language).

    Also: xenophobic.

  2. Rayne says:

    @P J Evans: Yeah, Asians who live outside their country of origin for very long are generally considered foreigners. Had a co-worker whose father was Chinese-born, immigrated to African continent to work in banking; he and his children were considered by Chinese family to be African or subsequently American once they moved to the States. Loss of language is only a part of the challenge for attempts at repatriation even now.

    Thanks for the correction, I’ll change it now. Blame my migraine-in-process for any errors or less-than-lucid thinking. Ouch.

  3. jo6pac says:

    One my favorite things about 0 is he picks stuff he knows is safe in the fact it will never happen. It’s all about him looking good like the cycle-0-path he is.

  4. Rayne says:

    @jo6pac: My head hurts too much today to torment myself looking through the previous SOTUs to see if he said the same damned thing: “Send me a bill, right away.”

    Leave your bets here on how many past SOTUs included this and I’ll check when my head stops hurting.

    I think “Send me a bill, right away,” is code to the GOP to do just the opposite. Wonder what other legislation he’s made the same demands about with the same results?

  5. P J Evans says:

    Migraines. Ow. My deepest sympathy; I’ve had them, or something that’s close enough for jazz (very quiet jazz). I usually try for a nap in a dark, quiet location.

  6. Mary McCurnin says:

    @Rayne: Imetrex always keeps my migraines at bay. I have auras before the headache so I know when I will get them. There are some contraindications. If you haven’t ever tried it, ask your doc.

  7. Rayne says:

    @P J Evans: Tried them all–quiet, dark, nap, hot pack, IB, aspirin, caffeine, etc.–nothing touched it. Bad one.

    @Mary McCurnin: I’d rather not do Imitrex, suspect this was an unusual confluence of factors ranging from weather conditions and virus to hormone flux and auto-immune syndrome. The last gives me pause about any drugs since I don’t know what tripped this likely permanent condition. Had no aura with this one as I woke up with the bloody beast bashing my head. At least it’s over except for the usual day-after fuzzy fatigue. ;-)

  8. 4jkb4ia says:

    Since the question was asked, one of my great-grandfathers has his name on the Ellis Island Memorial. AFAIK all my great-grandparents came in through Ellis Island because my parents’ generation was the first one to live outside New York. My grandmother literally thought that St. Louis was cowboys and Indians. This was in 1970.
    But the post is important because it shows that immigration is more complex than the myth and even in the context of the myth there were some brave people who were already here who were willing to embrace the changes and make unquestioned Americans out of the flood of new people that were coming. The Marco Rubios are important because they remind Republicans that in spite of their racism they have always relied on some Hispanic votes, and
    a) they may lose even the next generation of Cuban Americans
    b) at least some of the Cuban Americans are refugees. There was the story of Danell Leyva who is technically an illegal immigrant. My husband, the excellent one-person focus group, always makes the point that the USA should continue to be open to those who have real hardship–and those people may not have papers or stay calmly at the back of the line.

  9. Rayne says:

    @4jkb4ia: You’re fortunate that immigration was through Ellis Island; documentation was reasonably good. We still don’t know what my grandfather’s birth name really was, as in all records we’ve located–baptismal cert, census, other–his middle and first name were repeatedly transposed. Makes validation of his identity cumbersome.

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