State Legislators Attempt to Turn Back Clock to Antebellum South

antebellum southAt a press conference Wednesday morning at the National Press Club, a coalition of state legislators and immigration restrictionists known as the State Legislators for Legal Immigration (SLLI) presented their proposal to turn back the clocks to the pre-Civil War era to create a new definition of “state citizenship,” create a new second-class citizenship, and fundamentally alter the principles of the U.S. Constitution. With connections to restrictionist group FAIR and the notorious John Tanton Network, SLLI members Rep. John Kavanaugh of Arizona, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe of Pennsylvania, Kansas Secretary of State-elect Kris Kobach and others were on hand to monger more fear on “the illegal alien invasion” and, in the words of South Carolina’s state Senator Danny Verdin, cure the “malady” and “poison” of undocumented immigration.

In a radio interview on Tuesday, Rep. Kavanaugh of Arizona claimed that this proposal is “nothing dramatic or over the top,” but rather a “reasoned, rational approach” intended to trigger a legal review of the 14th Amendment. Rep. Metcalfe claims that this effort is needed to “correct the monumental misapplication of the 14th amendment.” Like Swift’s modest proposal, this proposal is far from reasoned and rational. It is an attempt to rewrite the Constitution and to assert state laws to strip some native-born U.S. citizens of their rights, punish innocent newborns for the actions of their parents, and otherwise trample upon the fundamental principles the U.S. is based on.

The 14th amendment clearly states that all persons born in the U.S., and subject to jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of U.S. and the states in which they reside. The model legislation attempts to revive a definition of “state citizenship” and narrow the categories of people who would be citizens of the state at birth by reinterpreting the “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” clause to include only those who “owe no allegiance to any foreign sovereignty.” Under their definition, only children born to at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen, national, or legal permanent resident would be considered citizens.

Walter Dellinger, former Assistant Attorney General and a member of a coalition called Americans for Constitutional Citizenship, stated:

The Supreme Court in 1898 made it absolutely clear that birth in U.S. guarantees a right to citizenship and the court has never looked back on it. We have understood the 14th amendment to mean that all persons born in U.S., and subject to jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of U.S. and the states in which they reside so that we have no doubt of citizenships and so that no judges, legislators or bureaucrats can decide who is and who is not a citizen of the U.S. This rule has worked for us since the Civil War for a good reason—so that we never have any doubt that people born here are citizens.

As if the legal questions raised by the first part of the proposal weren’t enough, the bill would also create a “state compact” requiring states to issue two different types of birth certificates: one for those considered “natural-born U.S. citizens” and another singling out those whom the state does not consider a citizen. This creates a situation in which state and hospital officials responsible for issuing birth certificates would be empowered to make life-altering decisions regarding the citizenship of a child and the immigration status of the parents.

michele waslinTheir audacity and shamelessness is noteworthy. Rep. Kavanagh and the other legislators have openly stated that their plan is to set up a showdown between state and federal power, to spark a legal challenge that will end up in the Supreme Court. They admit that the legislation itself is a means to an end; it would not have any immediate implications for the states that pass it. In this sense, they are simply using their own states and constituents as staging grounds for their ultimate battle. While the legislation may never be implemented, state taxpayers are going to have to foot the bill for costly litigation to defend the law and the crazy aspirations of its proponents. Arizonans in particular should understand the costs of a tarnished reputation.

It is clear that this is not a legitimate attempt to pose a Constitutional question. The ugliness and viciousness of the language invoked throughout today’s press conference signal the true intentions of the legislators.

Michele Waslin
Immigration Impact

Published by the LA Progressive on January 7, 2011
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About Michele Waslin

Michele Waslin, Ph.D., is the Senior Policy Analyst at the Immigration Policy Center. She has authored several publications on immigration policy and post-9/11 immigration issues. Ms. Waslin appears regularly in English and Spanish-language media. Previously, she worked as Director of Immigration Policy Research at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and Policy Coordinator at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. She received her Ph.D. in 2002 in Government and International Studies from the University of Notre Dame, and holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in Political Science from Creighton University. (mwaslin@ailf.org)