BY: ALEXANDRA MADARAS, EDITOR AND CONTRIBUTOR
“I am an American citizen, and I consider myself an American.”
For children born to immigrants, American citizenship has often been synonymous with American identity.
What happens when that identity is threatened?
Over nearly two years of the Trump presidency, nothing has been attacked, disputed, and reshaped so much as the idea of what America should be and who should be considered a part of it.
President Trump has often been at the center of debates surrounding immigration and citizenship due to his harsh rhetoric against Mexicans, Muslims, and well… most any non-white immigrants to the United States. Time and time again, he has attempted to carry out actions that limit what he sees as illegal immigration, from sending thousands of troops to the border of Mexico, to attempting a complete ban on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries in fear of an entire (non-existent) ethnic group.
This week, on October 30th, Donald Trump pulled one of his scariest tricks yet, just in time for Halloween festivities.
Last Tuesday, Axios reported that the President was confident he could end the practice of birthright citizenship through an executive order and seemed inclined to do so.
What is Birthright Citizenship?
Birthright citizenship, the act of granting citizen status to any child born on U.S. soil, has been a pillar of American life for over a century.
Our 14th Amendment directly states that “all persons born or naturalized, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”
For years, through court decisions and established precedent, the interpretation has been that anyone born in the United States is “subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” with the exception of diplomats and their children.
Now, this is up for debate.
With renewed effort against immigration to the United States, this administration is taking a hard line against the children of non-citizens as well.
Trump seemed assured that he could terminate the practice of automatic citizenship for children born to non-citizens or undocumented immigrants in the United States.
“It was always told to me that you needed a Constitutional Amendment,” the President told reporters.
“Guess what? You don’t.”
Are First Generation Citizenships at Stake?
“I don’t think it’s actually going to go anywhere,” said Kaavya Ramachandhran, a student at Mason High School and the child of two immigrants from India.
She said her parents got their citizenships just last year, after a decade of “background checks, screenings, interviews, history tests, and all of that.” They had been living in the U.S. on green cards since the turn of the century.
Kaavya said that learning about the executive order in Government class had somewhat convinced her that the 14th Amendment will likely uphold the rights of current citizens to retain their citizenship.
“I don’t know if it’s going to go further,” she added, “since it’s infringing on the Amendment itself.”
“But at the same time, we all said that about Net Neutrality, and look where we are now.
Who knows at this point?”
In principle, it’s unlikely that an executive order would strip Kaavya and others like her of citizenship.
In the 1967 case of Afroyim v. Rusk, the Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment has full control over the right to citizenship and that it may not be canceled without the consent of that citizen. However, the case ruled against Congress’ power over citizenship, not the power of an order from the White House. Most legal scholars now argue that if Trump were to follow through, a battle would be played out in the courts over the semantics. It is possible that if some act were to pass, new children born to non-citizens after that point would no longer be immediately eligible for citizenship.
Despite the questionable Constitutionalism of the proposed order, it stands as a strong statement, most recent in a string of brash attacks on the identity of first-generation Americans as well as their parents.
Just over a year ago, Trump moved against DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program which helped keep children of illegal immigrants safe from deportation and allowed them to work.
With the abolition of DACA, up to 800,000 first-generation Americans would become eligible for deportation. In September of 2018, the White House released a memo encouraging DACA recipients to prepare for their “departure from the United States.”
Since then, the Trump administration has only worked harder to make immigration, both legal and illegal, more difficult for everyone involved. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has worked seemingly tirelessly to limit appeals of entry based on asylum from violent and domestic crime, while appeals for green cards have slowed to an alarming extent. Even the number of accepted refugees, those designated specifically as people forced to flee their home countries due to insufferable conditions, has been reduced from 110,000 before 2016 to 45,000 this year. The administration has announced that they plan to reduce the number to 30,000 in 2019.
In addition, the rhetoric Trump and his administration have espoused concerning immigrants has been toxic since the beginning of his campaign. Among Trump’s infamous set of quotes is his branding of Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, criminals, and rapists. He has implied countless times that Muslim immigrants are bringing radical terrorism to America, and while terrorism from white supremacists has skyrocketed, he has refused to outright condemn white nationalism.
Under the Trump administration, it is clear that “America First” ideology is alienating people who may actually consider themselves American; this especially concerns the children of immigrants who, regardless of their legal status, have lived in the country their entire lives. The attack on birthright citizenship is simply the latest and greatest attempt from the White House to establish an idealistic view of America that is no longer the reality for our newest generation.
Birthright Citizens In Their Own Words
While many children of immigrants still identify with their parents’ native cultures, they also grow up with a sense that they have a place in the American identity.
Jan Kasal, a senior at John Burroughs High School, said that although he was born to Czech immigrants and holds a dual citizenship, he still considers himself an American.
“My parents have found success in America to a degree that isn’t really possible in the Czech Republic. Of course America as a country, culture, and government has some problems, and there are some parts I hate, but I live here. I’ve always thought of myself as American.”
The trend is similar in many first-generation citizens who share their culture between home life and their American identity. Kiret Sangha, 16, from Mason, OH, said that he feels grateful to have grown up here, although he still identifies with his Indian roots and his faith, Sikhism.
“I am proud of the freedoms and rights that this country offers and feel blessed to be given the opportunities that I have,” he said.
“I am an American citizen, and I consider myself an American.”
It is clear that American citizenship and identity often coincide when it comes to children of immigrants. The status of citizenship, however, represents more than a title or a show of patriotism. First-generation Americans especially understand that their citizenship affords them important rights and handholds necessary to progress through life in America.
The Value of Citizenship
Whatever the legality of their parents’ immigration, first-generation Americans are often in need of citizen status, whether they would face deportation without it or not.
Kaavya said that even “small” things, like college scholarships, require citizenship, and that she would feel limited in her life without it. If some semblance of Trump’s proposed order were to go through, children of future immigrants would lose rights to the opportunities that their fellow Americans would benefit from.
Yet, despite the benefits gained from American citizenship, Kaavya agrees that most families who immigrate under less-than-legal circumstances are not trying to “cheat the system.”
“I think the majority of people who are coming to America as immigrants aren’t coming with malicious intent,” she said.
Trials and Tribulations
Kiret also understands the gravity that American citizenship holds on quality of life.
He said he “know[s] of many families that struggle to move here due to the extreme immigration laws and often have to leave the country to get visas and other documentation approved.”
“I don’t have to struggle with those common problems that other immigrants have to face,” he said, acknowledging the intense conditions that children born elsewhere must face to gain their place as citizens.
The “usual” process to citizenship is indeed brutal. With or without DACA, children of immigrants can wait from early childhood through their teenage years and beyond to be considered a citizen. Under Trump’s theoretical executive order, even children born in the United States would need to endure the lengthy proceedings.
Anna Liner, a junior at Ladue High School in Ladue, MO, was born in Tel Aviv, Israel and was three years old when her mother won the green card lottery.
“That is the sole reason I am here now,” she said. “It’s really crazy how probability has changed my entire life.”
She said that her family endured a year-long process to enter America, even as they were still living in Israel. Once they were situated in the Bay Area, the family lived off of food stamps and was unable to afford the full citizenship process for Anna, leaving her with no proof of citizenship until just this year.
“I have lived in America since I was 4 years old,” she said, “but I only officially became a citizen in February of 2018.”
The difficulty and expense of the legal citizenship process is often a part of the reason why families enter the United States illegally. Enacting restrictions on the citizenship of the children of those families, and even families that enter legally, would punish children who cannot choose where they were born or who they were born to.
Despite the difficulty of the process, however, many families simply have little choice in which path to follow, fleeing to protect themselves and their children from imminent danger.
Why Don’t All Immigrants Go Through the Process?
Manuel, whose name has been changed to maintain anonymity, was born in the Ohio to undocumented immigrants from Honduras.
Manuel’s father fled Honduras after a devastating hurricane struck the nation in 1998. The danger of rising gang violence, especially from MS-13, forced him to leave the country with little other option in order to protect himself and attempt to better the life of his family.
Manuel recalls his own time in Honduras, telling the story of seeing the violence firsthand.
“My neighbor down the street…three of her kids were murdered. One seventeen years old, one eleven, and one four.”
Manuel’s father was granted Temporary Protected Status in 1998, due to his reasons for fleeing Honduras. This allowed him to get a job, acquire a license, and put food on the table for his family.
When Manuel’s mother came to the United States five years later with his little brother, however, she was not afforded the same protection. Despite having two children who were designated citizens, she was not able to remain with her family in Cincinnati.
“My mom was deported, I’d say about four years ago,” Manuel said.
“Now I’m living with my sister and my father.”
He added that if his citizenship were to be revoked, he would “either have to hide or go back to Honduras.” He spoke of his home country as a land of less-than-ideal living conditions.
“[There’s] high unemployment, high gang violence, high political unrest, and lots of poverty. When I was there, I saw that about half of the kids had a job and the other half were homeless.”
For those fleeing deplorable conditions like ones Manuel witnessed in Honduras, going through the system isn’t always as easy as it seems. With rising tensions and stiffening borders under the Trump administration, immigrants seeking protection from violence and devastation are no longer being treated within the context of human rights protection and disaster relief, two major categories that authorize legal entry.
The polarizing rhetoric surrounding an approaching caravan carrying migrants from Central America has also helped illustrate the demonization of immigration that is viewed as illegal. Trump has tweeted that the migrants are attempting to enter the U.S. “illegally,” despite many seeking asylum from violence and poverty, which is traditionally protected under United States and international law. He has pledged to send the military to the Southern border to confront what he calls an “invasion.” Sticking not only to defensive strategies, Trump went on the attack, claiming that members of the caravan were “unknown Middle Easterners” and “not little angels.”
“These parents just want their kids to grow up in a safe environment,” Manuel said. “They want to protect them from seeing the danger that their homeland truly is.”
He said that America is viewed as a land of freedom and prosperity, and it is the closest haven for families searching for safety and opportunity.
Mexican President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador agrees, offering cooperative work between Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. that would help Central American countries with domestic issues and alleviate the vast numbers of migrants fleeing their countries for the U.S.
“He who leaves his town does not leave for pleasure but out of necessity,” he added.
López Obrador and experts agree that if poor conditions were ameliorated, migrants caravans would become a rare sight.
And yet, in response to this most recent caravan, President Trump has pledged to cut off aid to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
Now, within the ever contentious issue of immigration, Trump has thrown another wild card on the table, one aimed at the children of the immigrants he is attempting to deter.
Will his executive order be the end of birthright citizenship? Most likely not. But it’s not nothing.
Trump Tells Americans They Are Not Welcome in America
Although to many, Trump’s proposed rescission of birthright citizenship is fanciful at best, it represents some of the most pointed efforts to date from the administration in targeting immigrant families and a new generation of diverse voices.
Kaavya said she felt that she wouldn’t be able to respond to Trump’s action, even if she could speak to him face to face. “I feel like President Trump would take one look at me and invalidate everything that I have to say.”
The underlying suspicion that even children of immigrants are not welcome in America has pervaded the atmosphere under the Trump administration and has now peaked through an action by the President himself.
With a questionable use of executive power, Trump will now attempt to tell first-generation Americans that they are not American at all.
Ultimately, his proposed act against birthright citizenship stands not only as a blow to the legal proceedings of the United States government, but also a blow against the identities of thousands of young people across the nation, one that they refuse to acknowledge would make them any less American.
Despite moves against their legal status, however, birthright citizens will remain strong in their identities and continue to fight for their right to be recognized as equal members of the United States.
Photo credits: U.S. Department of Agriculture