I liked it better when being born here was enough

If the 14th Amendment is repealed, how do we know we’re citizens at all?

 

Diane Sylvain is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Paonia, Colorado.


It's bad enough that we're supposed to worry about President Obama's citizenship; now, we also have to worry about our own. I always knew I'd be in trouble if the "papers, please" guys caught up with me, because the only copy I have of my birth certificate is so bedraggled and unconvincing. And if Obama's certificate, posted on the Internet and vouched for by Hawaii, isn't good enough, mine isn't worth the paper it was forged on. Besides, I can't remember where I stashed the thing. But it's not just me I'm worried about; it's my parents. How do I know they're legal? How can I — or you, or any of us — prove we're not "anchor babies"?

A growing number of conservatives want to repeal the 14th Amendment, or at least the part that says: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States. That would mean that being born here is no longer good enough; your parents need to be citizens. Makes sense, I guess. Except how do you know your parents were citizens?

Yes, of course, they told you they were. Probably told the folks at the hospital, too. But how do you know they weren't lying? They lied about Santa Claus, didn't they? They swore your zits would clear up when you turned 18. For all I know, I'm no more than an arthritic, middle-aged anchor baby. I just hope I don't find out that I'm also a terrorist anchor baby. That would really be a bummer.

Children play at Sand Dollar Beach in Monterey, California.

How far back does the chain of illegality go? Neither of my parents went through the naturalization process; they simply assumed they were citizens because they were born here, the offspring of parents who assumed they were citizens because they were born here, too.

Despite the fact that he is responsible for creating terror-babies –- he even called my brothers and me "terrors," we just didn't think he meant it -- I feel sorry for Dad, who thought he was safe from deportation in his Florida retirement community. He'll probably wave the flag, protesting that the country owes him something because he spent years in the military, but if you start going easy on people just because they served in, say, Vietnam, they'll never stop sneaking in. (Into the U.S., I mean, not Vietnam.) As for the rest of my ancestors, I'm only sorry it's too late to deport them. But I'd gladly ship their ashes back to wherever the hell they came from. If I could figure it out.

Unfortunately, I don't know a lot about my family's origins. My mother's brother waxed lyrical about our alleged descent from Robert the Bruce: "Our ancestors were kings in Scotland while those Hanoverians were hoeing turnips in Germany!" (Actual quote, originally delivered in an accent thick as Tupelo honey.) Uncle Herbert used to talk about how the Yankees burned our Georgia plantation as though he were still trying to get the scorchy smell out of the drapes, but I've always suspected that it was one of the Ancestral Trailers that got torched, if anything.

And on the other side of the family, I've never known a Sylvain who wouldn't have sneaked into this or any country illegally, given the chance. We're all born scofflaws with a low regard for "No Trespassing" signs. But none of this helps me know where to deport myself to. If the American South isn't truly my country of origin -- which wouldn't surprise me, or it -- then where do I go? Do I send my heart to the Highlands, ma tête to France, and divvy up the rest between Ireland and Germany and England and Canada and heaven knows where else? Or do I become purely migratory, lingering in each country of origin for an amount of time to be determined by DNA analysis?

This is all starting to make my head hurt. I liked it better when being born here was enough.

But I see Immigration is at the door, so I'd better start packing my bags, if I can find them. Still, I wouldn't get too comfortable if I were you, Mr. No-Birthright-Citizenship. Even if your ancestors came over on the Mayflower, you're still just the spawn of illegal Puritan terrorist anchor babies! It's time we redid the Statue of Liberty's poem. Instead of "Give me your tired, your poor … I lift my lamp beside the golden door," we'll simplify: "Good riddance to the lot of you. Don't let the golden door hit you on your way out!"

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