Sunday, September 6, 2015

Born in the USA

I admit it, I’m obsessed with Donald Trump, a man I detest so much that I’ve been known to switch channels the instant he appears on TV. Sadly this summer, avoiding him hasn’t been that easy. This does not bode well for the rest of the 2016 presidential campaign.

To say that Trump is breaking new ground in American politics would be stating the obvious which, unfortunately, has never deterred me before. He seems to possess some kind of weird animal magnetism borne from his giving voice, a brash and loud voice, to what is apparently a gigantic level of anti-immigrant sentiment in the US. Folks say he’s “tapping into” the anger some Americans, and I'm mostly thinking Tea Party types here, have over the approximately 11 million illegal aliens (or undocumented immigrants, pick your terminology) living in the US. I think it’s more like he’s exploiting that anger.

Anyway, with a substantial lead in the polls, this seems to be working for Trump. In the process, he is also forcing the other Republican candidates to ante up and match his more extreme opinions on immigration. Again, this does not bode well.

One of the Trump talking points now on everyone’s lips is “birthright citizenship”. This is a natural fixation for Trump, since it combines his interest in scapegoating illegal immigrants with his hobby of ferreting out who is and isn’t a citizen, at least when it comes to Barack Obama. Trump is, after all, a bona fide Birther, somehow convinced that Obama is not really an American because (in the alternate world of Birtherism) he was "born in Kenya". It would be sad if it weren't so idiotic. 

Birthright citizenship, currently the target of Trump's voluminous ire, is the legal right, enshrined in the Constitution no less, that grants US citizenship to anyone born on US soil. This means anyone, even if their parents are not US citizens and had barely set foot in America before going into labor.

Such jus soli ("right of the soil") basis for citizenship is typical in countries of the New World, no doubt due to the fact that they are all nations made up entirely of migrants, except for that minuscule slice of Americans, both North and South, able to trace their birthright back to the closing of the Bering Land Bridge some 11,000 years ago.

Jus soli is how I got my US citizenship. Or, at least, that’s my layman's legal interpretation of it.

The entire basis of me being an American is my birth certificate, a piece of paper that says I was born in a little town in Georgia. This was my only evidence of citizenship until 26 years later when I got my US passport – which was issued solely based on, wait for it, my birth certificate.

It was immaterial whether my parents were Americans. I assume no one at the hospital, or later at the county courthouse, demanded to see my parents’ proof of citizenship. I doubt my parents had any such proof anyway, other than, again, their own birth certificates. In any case, it didn’t matter what nationality my parents were. The fact that I was born within the borders of the US was enough.

It’s different back here in the Old World – the source, over the last five centuries, of the migrants “swarming” (to use David Cameron's term) to the Americas in hope of a better life. Citizenship in Europe has traditionally been based mostly on the jus sanguinis principle, that is, the “right of blood”. You were a German or a Finn at birth because your parents were Germans or Finns, irrespective of your birthplace. My children are Finns, not because they were born in Helsinki, but because their mother is Finnish. It’s all about the blood ties.

Sometimes, those ties can be surprisingly wide ranging. Finland recognizes a “right of return” for ethnic Finns, which means Finnish-speakers in Russia who for generations have never lived anywhere else can be fast-tracked for citizenship here simply thanks to their bloodline, while a child born in Helsinki to two Russian citizens will be a foreigner.

Of course, countries are free to define citizenship any way they want. In addition to birthright citizenship, the US also recognizes a form of jus sanguinis citizenship by allowing Americans to claim US citizenship for their children born abroad. That’s how my kids became American.

A few European countries even practice a form of birthright citizenship. France, for example, grants automatic citizenship to second-generation immigrants. Germany has since 2000 granted Staatsb├╝rgerschaft to the children of foreign residents who meet certain conditions (one of which, I presume, would be the ability to actually spell "Staatsb├╝rgerschaft").

And, some countries do make the kind of radical changes to citizenship criteria that Donald Trump is now envisioning.

The Dominican Republic ended birthright citizenship in 2004, which, as I say, it is free to do. However, the Caribbean country went a major step further by recently making the change retroactive. Suddenly, upwards of 200,000 Dominican citizens of Haitian descent became stateless, instantly being turned into undocumented foreigners in the only country they’ve ever known.  

I doubt (or at least fervently hope) that even if Donald Trump gets his wish and the US revokes birthright citizenship, it doesn’t go as far as the Dominican Republic. Interestingly though, such a retroactive move could strip one prominent Republican presidential hopeful of his citizenship. Marco Rubio was born on American soil, but to Cuban immigrants. While it has to be said that Rubio's parents were in the US legally, I still have to wonder whether he falls into the category of "anchor baby" that conservatives rail against so much.

I’m not sure what affect Trump’s proposal would have on another GOP presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, who came by his US citizenship in the same way as my children did.

Cruz was born in Canada, and he’s a US citizen solely thanks to his American mother. His father, a Cuban, wasn’t a citizen at the time, but that doesn’t matter, since you need only one American parent to become an American yourself. Ironically, Cruz also had Canadian citizenship until recently, since birthright citizenship is also a thing north of the border. Apparently, Cruz wasn’t even aware of his dual citizenship status until someone pointed it out a couple years ago after he became a rising star of the Tea Party. I have no idea whether Cruz could also claim Cuban citizenship through his father, but obviously that's not something he's eager to do.

And even more ironic, the circumstances of Cruz’s birth (born in a foreign land to a foreign father and an American mother) is exactly the same as Barack Obama’s back story would have been if he had, in fact, been born in Kenya, and not Hawaii. It’s that mythical Kenyan birth that many “Birthers” believe disqualifies Obama to be president. Tellingly, none of them is making the same claim about Cruz, not even the most famous Birther of them all, Donald J. Trump.

Trump is, after all, pretty heavily invested in the Birther Myth. In 2011, the last time he threatened to run for president, Trump dispatched, to great fanfare, a crack team of private investigators to Hawaii to dig up evidence that Obama was NOT born there.

Those super sleuths must still be there four years on, still searching for clues, since Trump has never revealed the outcome of that investigation, though he did claim at some point that his investigators “couldn’t believe” what they had uncovered so far.

In fact, “unbelievable” is just the word that comes to mind when I think of anything to do with Donald Trump, and his take on American citizenship. Just unbelievable.