Monday, August 2, 2010

Nation of Immigrants...and their Children

Do you know when your ancestors first officially became American citizens? I would hazard a guess that most of us do not. That's a shame, because we're all (with the exception of North America's first families) from somewhere else, and the stories of why we came here and how we eventually were woven into the American fabric are essential to who we are and how we think.

Ever the armchair genealogist, I have some knowledge about my own family's path to citizenship. My mother's side -- with the exception of one Scottish branch -- was here well before the velvet rope went up. They simply woke up one day to discover that they were now Americans. No forms, no tests...easy as pie. That lone Scottish branch crossed over from Canada into Maine in the 1880s, and my great-grandmother only became an American by marrying my great-grandfather.  Up to that point, she was an "illegal alien".

Dad's side was what I like to call my "Ellis Island" side -- Germans, Irish and Swedes, all showing up in a twenty-five-year period between 1880 and 1905. The pattern with them was for the male immigrant to file all the naturalization paperwork, bringing the present or future wife along by virtue of marriage. Of course, they didn't have to worry about when their children were born during this process because they knew their citizenship was guaranteed simply by having been born on American soil. Imagine the relief the parents must have felt knowing their kids wouldn't have to endure the various struggles they had.

Well, after a good century and a half of this constitutionally-guaranteed right -- born of the desire to protect the citizenship of freed slaves during Reconstruction -- there are now politicians seeking to chuck the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Back in the day, it was a Republican-led charge to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (which became the 14th Amendment two years later to preempt any attempt by the Supreme Court to rule it unconstitutional), so it is with no little irony that one notes it is the political heirs to the Party of Lincoln who now seek to repeal it.

So what happened...why the change of heart? My guess is political expediency. We're obviously a very different country now than we were in 1866. We still had lots of room then and wanted to fill it. We were also a lot closer to our immigrant roots, immigrant customs, immigrant languages. Additionally, newly-free slaves, as well as their freeman cousins in the North, were pretty safe votes (where they were allowed to get anywhere near a polling station) for the Party of Lincoln. Today, manifest destiny fully accomplished, we want to protect our borders. Nevermind that the American Southwest was Spanish long before "we" showed up (Santa Barbara, anyone?), it is "ours" now and we're full-up, thank you very much. There simply isn't room for modern-day immigrants "abusing the system" by having the unmitigated gall to give birth on this side of the border.

America -- the gated community, writ large.

But back to the political expediency. It is hardly lost on today's politicians that virtually all of the people coming over the border do so, at great risk, because they feel compelled by economic necessity. In other words, they're poor -- like the Irish/Italians/Poles/Swedes/etc. of their day. And as such, they and their children are most likely not predisposed to vote (once they can) for the party that a) advocates smaller government with fewer services and b), er, wanted to keep them out in the first place. Then there's the foreignness factor. A different language and culture make easy work for a politician seeking to inject the fear of otherness in a they're-storming-the-gates sort of way. People who are told they are under assault do not necessarily react in the most rational way. Conveniently, whether implicitly or explicitly (see any Tea Party rally), this message is underscored by a bi-racial sitting President, born in Hawaii, who happens to have had an African and Muslim father.

The frenzy being whipped up is a dangerous one, not least of which because it advocates throwing overboard something that has made the country what we purport to want to protect.