Pacific Citizen, News Analysis, Nalea J. Ko and Caroline Aoyagi-Stom
LOS ANGELES - In the 1940s the group Native Sons of the Golden West launched a concerted effort to deny all Japanese U.S. citizenship. They also sought to deny citizenship to their U.S.-born children.
Their efforts failed but now some Republicans are resurrecting the idea some 60 years later. In July, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said he plans to propose an amendment to repeal birthright citizenship and he’s being joined by some leading Republicans. Their plan would require changing the 14th Amendment which grants citizenship to U.S.-born children.
“There is a problem,” Sen. John Boehner said on NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Aug. 8. “To provide an incentive for illegal immigrants to come here so that their children can be U.S. citizens does, in fact, draw more people to our country. I do think that it’s time for us to secure our borders and enforce the law and allow this conversation about the 14th Amendment to continue.”
Proponents believe there’s an immigration problem in the U.S. that needs to be addressed. And the 14th Amendment, they say, has been misrepresented from its original purpose of granting citizenship to freed slaves.
But Asian Americans believe the proposal is unrealistic and counterproductive.
“It’s not a serious proposal,” said Bill Ong Hing, law professor at the University of San Francisco. “But to say to change the constitution is basically impossible. So they have a better chance of passing some other law than they do of amending the constitution.”
The Obama administration has spoken out against a constitutional amendment. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says that it is “just wrong” to reconsider the 14th Amendment.
An estimated 340,000 babies were born to undocumented citizens in 2008, according to an Aug. 11 report by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group in Washington. The report also found that more than four percent of U.S. adults are undocumented.
Those who oppose repealing birthright citizenship say the constitutional amendment proposal is likely just a tactic to deter comprehensive immigration reform.
“They want to just incite more anti-immigrant sentiment. That’s probably the best way of putting it.” Hing added, “It’s impossible to happen, so they just want to put it out there to incite more anti-immigrant sentiment.”
For many Japanese Americans, the current debate about birthright citizenship sounds all too familiar. In the early 1940s the JACL, NAACP and the ACLU formed an unprecedented coalition to fight against the efforts of the Native Sons to deny citizenship to the Nisei and their children.
In Regan v. King, the Native Sons were attempting to repeal the 1898 Supreme Court ruling in favor of Wong Kim Ark — a Chinese American who won the right to hold property and vote — a ruling that helped to establish the principle of birthright citizenship.
Americans of Japanese ancestry were being confined behind barbed wire internment camps during World War II and the Native Sons cited racist arguments in their efforts to change Amendment 14. Leading the JACL efforts at the time was JACL National President Saburo Kido.
In a June 1942 Pacific Citizen editorial, Kido writes about the Native Sons: “This group has attacked all the basic civil rights of the American citizen of Japanese ancestry, including the right of franchise and even the right of citizenship. Today if anyone is a fifth columnist, it is the pseudo-patriot who hides behind the cloak of patriotism and the flag and creates race hatred and stirs up disunity.”
After several rulings against the Native Sons, in May 1943 the High Court refused to review Regan v. King thus killing their case.
“It’s our position that immigrants are very key to our economy, to our way of life as Americans. That is the engine of the American dream. [That] is why immigrants come here,” said Floyd Mori, JACL national director. “So the birthright movement I think is very shortsighted … we’re all immigrants except Native Americans and Native Hawaiians.
“It’s actually foolish to think that this birthright that has been with us since this country began should be repealed. So we are concerned. We hope that people who understand this will express their voice that immigrant birthright is something that is as American as anything can be.”
Now six decades later some groups are trying to pick up where the Native Sons left off.
The heightened talks of making a constitutional amendment have some undocumented citizens questioning the future.
“I just couldn’t imagine, immigration or hospital officials in delivery rooms, asking for residency papers from the parents,” said Jong-Min, who is undocumented, and agreed to be interviewed under partial anonymity.
“Regardless, the number of illegal immigrants would skyrocket, and not because of the sole reason of having undocumented parents, but due to the rigorous requirements of such a bill,” he said.
Many say repealing birthright citizenship would primarily target U.S.-born children with undocumented parents. More than one million Asian Pacific Americans are undocumented, explained Meredith Higashi, staff attorney with the Asian American Justice Center. About two-thirds of the APA community is foreign-born.
“The denial of citizenship to a segment of the population born within this country is completely counter to the principles enshrined in the 14th Amendment — the cornerstone of American civil rights — by its framers and upheld by the Supreme Court numerous times,” Higashi said.
APAs are hopeful that the process to make a constitutional amendment would make this proposal nearly impossible.
A constitutional amendment would require two-thirds support from the House and Senate, Hing said. Three-fourths of the state legislatures would also have to approve such an amendment. The possibility of getting that type of support to alter the 14th Amendment is something some lawyers question.
“That level of consensus on the issue of repealing birthright citizenship is not there, and it is even more unrealistic as a legitimate proposal if legislators were to consider the burdensome and complicated repercussions proof-of-citizenship measures would have on all Americans,” said Higashi.
Professor Greg Robinson believes the Native Sons in the 1940s were driven by “a fundamental motivation of white supremacy.”
He adds, “While today racial equality is widely accepted, and public anxieties about immigration no longer center on Asians, it is worth remembering why the principle of birthright citizenship is valuable and the consequences of abolishing it unpredictable.