Margaret Rozga, poet, civil rights activist and professor emerita of English at UW-Waukesha, blasts Donald Trump for his stance against birthright citizenship, guaranteed in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
What with real issues like threats to traditional public schools, dismissal of scientists from their positions in the state Department of Natural Resources and a well-funded campaign against passage of a crucial nuclear treaty with Iran, I resolved to avoid discussions about the presidential election still more than 14 months in the future.
Then Donald Trump propelled us into dangerous territory. He called the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship “stupid.” No other country grants such a right, he said, as if what everyone else does is the final authority for what he, and we, should do. Either he doesn’t know U.S. history, or he chooses to ignore it.
When Roger B. Taney, the fifth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, wrote the 7-2 decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Stanford (1857), he went far beyond the immediate issues in the case. Dred Scott had been taken by his enslaver to free territory, so he sued in court for his freedom. Taney’s decision held that the U.S. Constitution never intended to allow persons of African descent to be citizens, that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” This disastrous decision intensified the fight between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions as the country moved closer to the Civil War.
In the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, Congress wrote and within two years the states ratified the 14th Amendment, nullifying the Taney Court’s decision. The 14th Amendment removed any doubt about how the Constitution is be interpreted on the questions of citizenship and equality. They are not the exclusive privileges of white people.
The equal protection provision of the 14th Amendment has been important to the arguments in such landmark cases as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, which challenged segregated schools.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Cavalierly, Trump would discard birthright citizenship and the equal protection principle. He cannot dislodge one phrase from this provision of the 14th Amendment without unsettling the whole. He minimizes the significance of setting aside more than 140 years of American jurisprudence by listing it as merely one item in his immigration policy. He seems not to know that amendments to the Constitution stand firm in ways that transitory policies of this or that administration do not. He seems not to know the complex procedure required to amend the Constitution.
Or he knows and flies over these complexities, hoping to make such radical action seem acceptable and thus undermine a principle spelled out in the Preamble to the Constitution: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Whether he speaks through ignorance or malice, ignoring the ideas he floats seems unwise. What he proposes needs to be identified for what it is. It is cruel. It is a flagrant insult to Latinos. It is devastating to our national purpose and identity. It is an emphatic way of saying brown lives do not matter. It is a way of saying black lives do not matter.
It hits at this decisive moment in history with the Dreamers on the verge of achieving their dream and the Black Lives Matter movement gaining momentum toward equality in ways we haven’t seen since the civil rights movement 50 years ago. In making his outrageous proposals, Donald Trump puts himself in league with Chief Justice Taney, who was among those whose did damage the nation could not endure.