For many second-generation Americans whose parents did whatever it took to reach U.S. soil, their citizenship is a badge of honor and a meaningful chance for a more comfortable life. However, being born in the United States may no longer be enough to guarantee the rights and opportunities associated with being a full, documented resident if President Trump has any say about it. In a recent interview with Axios, he announced intentions to sign an executive order that would end birthright citizenship. Given that about 250,000 babies in 2016 were born to non-citizen immigrant parents, the order would carry a significant impact if implemented. In the days since Trump’s announcement, legal experts have frantically tried to ascertain whether or not this policy move would actually be constitutional since birthright citizenship is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. However, regardless of whether Trump actually manages to end birthright citizenship, merely floating the possibility is yet another deeply worrisome move in Trump's hard-line, white nationalist, anti-immigration campaign.
Birthright citizenship has long been framed as a strength of the United States. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that American citizenship as a right for all people who are born on American soil. This amendment was ratified 150 years ago during the Reconstruction era in response to the landmark Dred Scott v. Sandford case decision that denied citizenship to former slaves and their descendants. Different groups have utilized the 14th amendment—and its promise of citizenship for all born in the country—to access certain rights excluded to them on the local level. In the case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark, the Supreme Court ruled that a child born to parents of Chinese nationality—who at the time had a permanent domicile and residence in the United States—automatically became a US citizen. In the early 1900s, Japanese-American farmers, who were unable to own land due to the exclusionary Alien Land Law, managed to claim ownership through the citizenship of their Nisei children.
Attacking immigration and citizenship does not go without precedence in the Trump era. There are numerous ways that navigating immigration has already changed since the administration took office. In 2014, the average application took about five months to go through the naturalization process. Now it takes nearly twice that. This past September, the administration launched an effort to revoke citizenship from people who they suspect of fraudulently obtaining it. “Hundreds, even thousands” of Latinos born near the U.S.-Mexico border were told that their birth certificates weren’t sufficient proof of U.S. citizenship to get their passports approved or renewed. Furthermore, Trump announced Wednesday that the number of military troops deployed to the U.S.-Mexican border could reach 15,000. Targeting birthright citizenship certainly doesn’t deviate far from this troubling lineage. Immigration and citizenship were hallmarks of his campaign speeches. Back in 2015, he expressed that he doesn’t think people born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrants should be considered citizens. This recent rhetoric is so concerning partly because it represents a realization of campaign threats actually coming to fruition. For those who wrote Trump off, saying that he would never act on his own words, the nightmare is being actualized.
Trump’s proposed constitutional change—as well as his other ethno-nationalist domestic policies—would de facto affirm whiteness as citizenship. By creating and magnifying a fabricated fear of undocumented Mexican immigrants as threats, he reproduces a conception of citizenship that is deeply racialized and hinges on proximity to whiteness. It substantiates dangerous white supremacist dog whistles and fear-mongering over shifts in ethnic demographics. Regardless of whether or not this specific policy can or will take effect, the bottom line is that the fear being generated is putting already vulnerable segments of the population at greater risk. This creation of new definitions of illegality and non-citizens only adds to the specter of the “violent immigrant” that Trump has further entrenched in conservative Americans. Even if his proposed policy eventually gets rejected on a legal basis, we can’t estimate the long term impact that his rhetoric will have. Immigrants are under attack and this fervent, viral hostility has already permeated so many institutions.
While even leaders of the Republican party are skeptical about this policy coming to fruition, it is nonetheless deeply troubling and should concern us. In these frightening times, we need an analysis and a strategy centered on building solidarity with the most targeted communities while placing an urgent emphasis on direct action and mobilization.