These attacks on citizenship are the latest chapter in the long history of the denial of citizenship in this country. While the Supreme Court upheld denials of citizenship based on race, first and most famously in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which denied African Americans citizenship, nativist public officials have also used their discretionary powers to disregard the citizenship of other groups as well.
The experiences of Irish Americans in the 19th century and Mexican Americans in the 20th century demonstrate the fragility of citizenship rights, as well as the ways nativist and racist ideas have long been used to attempt to undermine them. Narrowing the scope of birthright citizenship is less about shifting patterns of immigration and more about allowing prejudice and intolerance to run loose. And in the end, the triumph of a nativist political agenda hurts all citizens.
The Irish were the first immigrant group that faced challenges to citizenship. As “free white persons,” the Irish could become citizens under the Naturalization Act of 1790. Also, unlike African Americans, the birthright citizenship of Irish Americans was never legally questioned.
Nonetheless, despite meeting the legal qualifications for citizenship, the Irish faced significant barriers to being accepted by the United States in the mid-19th century. The mass arrival of impoverished Irish Catholics fleeing the potato famine provoked an outburst of anti-Irish nativism. Besides disparaging the Catholic faith predominant among the Irish, nativists expressed disdain for the immigrants’ poverty, dismissing Irish men and women as lazy welfare abusers.
In Massachusetts, the legislature developed state laws to deport foreign-born paupers back to Europe. Just like undocumented immigrants today, the Irish poor were categorized as people who had no right to public benefits or even residence in the country.
Massachusetts’s deportation law technically applied only to noncitizens, but at the height of anti-Irish nativism during the 1850s, state officials used it to expel even citizens of Irish descent. In May 1855, Massachusetts officials seized and deported Mary Williams, an Irish-born woman, to Liverpool from a state almshouse. Banished with Williams was her American-born daughter Bridget.
Naturalized adult citizens, such as Irish-born Hugh Carroll, were also targeted. Carroll was expelled from Fitchburg, Mass., “across the seas for the crime of being poor,” reported an Irish American newspaper. Though he was a citizen, the law failed to protect him.
The nativists who controlled the Massachusetts legislature maintained that the law had been enforced “with all proper humanity and discretion” and that “there is no room for the operation of any improper motives or unreasonable severity.” But their ability to pass such a law and enforce it was a byproduct of the lack of explicit federal protection.
Indeed, before the 14th Amendment established the constitutional definition of national citizenship in 1868, the rights and privileges of American citizens remained undefined and fragile. In such a situation, nativist local officials felt little obligation to follow the formal guidelines for deportation, easily disregarding the citizenship of destitute Irish Americans, who they believed belonged in Ireland rather than the United States.
Prejudice also drove officials and nativists to treat Mexican Americans as noncitizens despite their legal status as citizens.
After the Mexican-American War (1846-48), the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo extended U.S. citizenship to Mexicans living in the ceded territory, something not afforded to any other nonwhite group at the time. But this was only a political concession. While Mexicans were legally citizens, many white Americans, from politicians to ordinary people, simply ignored this legal dictate. They did not believe Mexican Americans to be citizens because of their indigenous blood. Political leaders fought the legal classification of Mexicans by claiming they were neither white nor black, but in a “race of their own.”
Even the 14th Amendment failed to protect Mexican Americans from continued assaults on their citizenship in the 20th century. The Great Depression exposed how vulnerable Mexican Americans’ citizenship was. During that time, mixed-status Mexican American families were subject to “repatriation” programs, both voluntary and involuntary, and the citizenship rights of thousands of American-born children were routinely ignored as they were deported, sometimes forcibly, along with their families.
The reason for expulsion? Many had simply received some kind of charity or assistance — like seeking treatment in a public hospital or getting assistance to pay for a child’s funeral expenses. Like the Irish immigrants before them, they, too, were expelled for the crime of being poor — a notable difference from mixed-status European families, for whom only a criminal record could warrant deportation.
In 1935, when Congress introduced bills meant to prevent immigrants of “good moral character” and with no criminal offenses from being separated from their families, it was clear that the legislation was only intended to offer a path to citizenship for European immigrants. The congressional hearing featured only cases of all-white or European families; no Mexican or Asian families were included. One senator argued that it was inhumane to send immigrants back to Germany or the Soviet Union given the political situations in those countries. Another described a Canadian mother who had entered the country legally with her baby in her arms but had not registered the child, who was thus now deemed “illegal” and would have to be deported.
The 14th Amendment established national citizenship for African Americans and anyone born in the United States, serving as a bulwark against attempts to encroach on the citizenship of racial minorities. And yet, nativism and racism have long invalidated citizenship rights in practical terms, from Wong Kim Ark, an American born to Chinese immigrant parents who was barred from reentering the United States in 1895, to the tens of thousands of Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II.
Nativist policymakers target everyone: the native-born, the naturalized and the undocumented alike, and so we need to ensure that all are protected from nativist and racist coercions.
If we hold that the 14th Amendment excludes from citizenship the U.S.-born children of citizens from other countries, we also deny citizenship to tens of thousands of people of European parentage who have been considered citizens of the United States. Weakening this core provision of our Constitution weakens it for everyone, not just those who are deemed “less worthy” at a given moment in history.
We must protect this core American principle. The citizenship we save may just be our own.