Just when you might have thought the debates about immigration—both legal and illegal—could not become more difficult and emotional, there is yet another controversy now brewing: President Trump’s plan to end birthright citizenship by executive order for those whose parents have entered the United States illegally. This executive order, should it actually come to pass, would certainly be immediately challenged in federal court, and it could be several years before the matter works its way up to the Supreme Court for an ultimate resolution regarding the meaning and intent of the 14th Amendment.
For a nation populated by immigrants and the descendants of immigrants, this issue obviously has special resonance, and it collides with our national identity as a nation that has always welcomed everyone to our shores. The reality is, of course, starkly different.
When the early American period of frontier expansion, which required a large and ready pool of immigrants ready to risk all in order to seize lands held by others, came to an end toward the end of the late 1800’s, immigrants piling into now-established cities and towns became an increasing irritant to those already settled in place. More restrictive laws were soon enacted to stem the influx of “foreigners” bringing their cultures and languages ashore to dilute the supposed purity and perfection of this new nation. The taint of otherness that greeted many new immigrants to this country was often based upon the crudest ignorance and bigotry, but America’s population nonetheless became ever more diverse over time as a sometimes unfair and occasionally arbitrary system of legal immigration was developed and refined over the decades to come.
However, over the past several decades the number of people residing in the United States illegally has skyrocketed, and their unlawful entries have been enabled by both poorly conceived and executed governmental policies and the efforts of private organizations advocating on behalf of unrestricted immigration. Unsurprisingly, many pressing questions have arisen regarding how to respond to an undocumented population that has been estimated to range from 11 to 22 million adults, adolescents, and children.
President Trump won election partly—some might say primarily—based on his promise to stem the tide of illegal immigration to the United States, and over the first two years of his administration we have all been witness to the many political firestorms that have accompanied his efforts to both harden our borders and expeditiously expel those who circumvented or ignored legal requirements for entry. Many states and local governments have responded to this effort by asserting their local sovereignty and refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities—and some have even advocated for abolishing ICE, the agency now tasked with enforcing the laws and regulations now on the books.
Now added to this mix is the question of whether American citizenship will continue to be automatically granted to the American-born children of illegal immigrants, which is an issue quite separate from the ongoing discussions concerning how to resolve the legal status of those brought here as children by parents who entered the United States illegally and raised them in this country. As one can easily see, the many layers of complex problems that require resolution by Congress and the courts defy tidy morality and easy answers.
The inherent sloppiness of reality—in this case compounded by decades of shortsighted thinking regarding immigration policies and enforcement—guarantees that a substantial number of Americans will be dissatisfied with the resolution of the cases of the many millions of people who live in the United States but have no legal basis for continuing to do so. We know many innocents will be made to suffer due to the past stupidity of our government. Moreover, given that it is functionally impossible for America to absorb everyone who wants to live in our great nation, many will be compelled to leave so that some may stay. The forced exodus of those who have grown accustomed to life in the United States and presumed they could remain forever because our immigration policies regarding illegal entry were apparently all but forgotten will cause real pain to both those compelled to leave and those left behind.
The newest wrinkle—that of the possible limitations of the 14th Amendment—will be a topic of heated debate. Originally crafted after the Civil War in order to confer immediate citizenship to freed slaves, the question of whether this Constitutional amendment applies equally to the American-born children of those who entered America illegally has never been fully resolved, and the fear among advocates for the undocumented is that federal courts now being rapidly reshaped by the conservative appointees of President Trump will tend toward a circumscribed interpretation at odds with the more expansive and welcoming immigration policies they favor.
There is little doubt that stricter enforcement of existing immigration laws—and perhaps a landmark reinterpretation of the 14th Amendment—will divide Americans in the years ahead. Attempting to either deport or legitimize tens of millions of people will have a major impact upon many families and communities, and there is no doubt this will be a political and social wedge issue in our nation for a long time to come. However, the alternative, which boils down to an open border policy, is simply not feasible—especially given the incredible number of people who are desperate to live in America in order to escape economic hardship, political persecution, and violent crime in their own countries.
All we can really expect looking forward is more anger and anguish.