Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Religious right joins fight against migrant kids

Leaders of the religious right -- likes of Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association and Gary Bauer, former rightwing political candidate -- have gotten together to push one of the ugliest forms immigration restriction. By way of something called Families First on Immigration, according to the Washington Times, these guys have taken a stance in the immigration debate. No, they are not advocating welcoming the stranger or defending the rights of the alien worker in a strange land. They want a "grand compromise" that does away with "birthright citizenship."

What's birthright citizenship? It was created by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which states:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

This amendment was enacted after the Civil War to ensure that persons born as slaves -- that is, African Americans -- were now understood to be citizens. Though this might seem obvious today, it wasn't at the time. Before the Civil War, white citizens, Northern and Southern, largely took it for granted that Blacks were not their equals, not only socially but in legal rights. Even a faction of "well-meaning" white abolitionists wanted to send freed slaves back to Africa. But, as Howard Zinn wrote in A People's History of the United States, Northern "victory required a crusade and the momentum of the crusade brought new forces into national politics." So the winners decided that Blacks were to be full citizens and wrote birthright citizenship into the 14th Amendment.

The 14th Amendment thus aimed to remove a racial lens for determining citizenship -- it continues to fulfill that mandate today as courts have interpreted it to mean anyone born in the United States, regardless of the legal status of their parents, is a citizen.

Although English common law takes a similar stance, the United States differs from much of Europe in our citizenship definition, notably from Germany where a class of "guest workers," largely of Turkish origin, have lived for several generations without acquiring full citizenship. We don't do that; if you are born here, you are a citizen.

Immigration restriction as espoused by white citizens is too often an expression of the fear of "browning," of the demographic tide that has this country well on its way toward ceasing to have a white majority. It thrives on the fear that "those people" have lots of babies just to enable them to engulf the United States.

It is sad, but perhaps not entirely surprising, to find the leaders of the religious right playing to racial fears by joining an effort led by outright xenophobes to repeal birthright citizenship. After all, pseudo-populist initiatives that both incite -- and pretend to allay -- hyped-up fears are their stock in trade. Look at their incitement of panic in response to the "threat" of full civil rights for gays.

That is, their stance is not surprising, until one thinks for a moment about the tradition they claim to uphold. These are the scriptural literalists, the folks who claim to hold the Bible as their sole authority. And what does the Bible say about migrants? The Bible has been called the Ultimate Immigration Handbook: written by, for, and about Migrants, Immigrants, Refugees, and Asylum Seekers. The citation is to a curriculum created by the aid agency Church World Services for use by U.S. congregations thinking about immigration issues. Take a look -- it is a wonderful exposition of ancient Hebrew and Christian teachings about how we must treat the strangers in our midst. For Christians in particular, it includes the reminder that the very form of Jesus' execution, crucifixion outside the gates, was the form prescribed for a non-citizen of the Roman Empire.

Thanks to Migra Matters for pointing me to the Washington Times story.

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