In 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed a so-called Anti-Terrorism Bill, he was actually setting the stage for a long-term assault on civil liberties and undermining non-citizens' rights. A few months later, in an election-season capitulation condemned even by his supporters, Clinton embraced welfare "reform," denying benefits to immigrants – even legal residents. The law imposed a state feudalism that punished the poor and the vulnerable while giving governors open-ended welfare checks – called Block Grants – to spend as they pleased.
Ending an entitlement that began with the New Deal, welfare "reform" also put much of the burden of cuts on immigrants, eliminating access to food stamps and Supplemental Security Income. Even disabled legal immigrants lost benefits. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert called this "a form of officially sanctioned brutality aimed at the usual suspects – the poor, the black and the brown, the very young, the uneducated, immigrants. Somebody has to be the scapegoat and they're it."
Anti-terrorism legislation passed during that era also hurt immigrants. For example, it allowed asylum officers at the border to turn back people fleeing persecution or death if they just didn't thoroughly document their case – or request travel documents from the government that was threatening them.
But the most sweeping attacks, then and now, have come in the guise of immigration "reform" legislation, largely designed to drive the undocumented underground, perpetuate exploitation, divide communities, and punish children. A true example of post-modern doublespeak, such "reform" epitomizes a fortress mentality that fuels hate crimes and allows racism to wrap itself in the flag.
Throughout the 1990s, Human Rights Watch accused the US Border Patrol of routinely abusing people, citing a pattern of beatings, shootings, rapes, and deaths. In response, INS detainees in a private jail rioted in June 1995 after being tortured by guards. But even when such crimes – including the sexual abuse of women in custody – have been reported, agents know that the most they will get is a slap on the wrist.
More recently, the US Congress considered legislation that would combine a “compromise” legalization program with new border and interior enforcement measures likely to increase arrests, detentions, and confrontations in Latino and ethnic communities. Blocking traditional avenues of legalization, the leading proposals would increase the size of the undocumented population, while undermining the legal and human rights of immigrants.
After 9/11, the US considered placing soldiers along the Mexico border. It hasn’t happened yet, but similar plans - from a higher wall to drone patrols -- are often touted. Meanwhile, efforts to curtail immigration through tighter security have redirected the flow into the most desolate areas of the border, increasing the mortality rate of those crossing. Between 1998 and 2004, at least 1,900 people died trying to cross the US-Mexico border.
"All persons born or naturalized in the United States," states the 14th Amendment, "and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
That could change, however. Some politicians want to abolish the citizenship guarantee of this 130-year-old Amendment. The rationale? Too many undocumented immigrants come to the US to insure citizenship for their children. Like the idea of letting states deny free public education to children of undocumented parents, it uses the immigrant "threat” as a pretext for attacks on basic rights and constitutional principles.
“Citizenship in this country should not be bestowed on people who are the children of folks who come into this country illegally," argues Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who has led the charge. In 2006 at least 83 GOP co-sponsors pushed a bill that would restrict automatic citizenship at birth to children of U.S. citizens and legal residents.
In the past, the Supreme Court has described citizenship as the most basic of all rights, a "priceless possession." The opening clause of the 14th Amendment was designed principally to grant both national and state citizenship to the newly free Blacks. Under its terms, citizenship is acquired by either birth or naturalization; thus, any person born in the US is a citizen – regardless of parentage.
A primary goal of the Amendment was to overrule the Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court held that neither Blacks who were "imported into this country and sold as slaves nor their descendants" could become citizens. During debate in 1866, Congress also considered the likelihood that it would apply to children of immigrants. Until the 14th Amendment, there was no constitutional definition of US citizenship. Ironically, the Republican Party pushed this and other Reconstruction measures through Congress after the Civil War.
Some claim that, if children born in the US to illegal immigrants are citizens, it's too easy for their parents to obtain visas and citizenship later. The idea surfaced in a 1996 GOP platform proposal; recommended by a panel created by then House Speaker Newt Gingrich, it called for "a constitutional amendment or constitutionally valid legislation declaring that children born in the United States of parents illegally present are not automatically citizens." Scholars have warned that an amendment would almost certainly be needed to make such a profound change.
A month before she died, Barbara Jordan, former chairwoman of the US Commission on Immigration Reform, eloquently denounced the idea. "To deny birthright citizenship," she told Congress, "is to derail the engine of American liberty." Walter Dellinger, Acting Solicitor General at that time, added the following prediction: It would create "a permanent caste of aliens, generation after generation born in America but never to be among its citizens." Nevertheless, the proposal is back.
This article is excerpted from a longer analysis written in 2006 but contains material originally published in Toward Freedom and Borderlines, and from a talk delivered at Eastern New Mexico University on September 15, 1996.