Originally published by The NY Times
I’ve never taken my United States citizenship for granted. It’s a gift bequeathed to me by my Guatemalan immigrant parents. My right to be an American begins with the story of their arrival in this country. And it’s a piece of paper issued by Los Angeles County, my birth certificate.
There are millions of Americans like me. To the xenophobes, a Third World cloud hangs over us, children of the foreign born. Donald Trump began his rise to power by questioning the birthplace — and citizenship — of Barack Obama, one of our number who became president. In the story Mr. Trump tells about this country, we are part of an imaginary underground army of fake citizens and fake voters, undermining the real America.
Mr. Trump’s skepticism is now government policy. According to a report in The Washington Post, his administration is forcing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lifelong American citizens of Latino descent to prove they are citizens. Some have been jailed in immigration detention centers, others stripped of their passports and stranded in foreign countries.
Many of the people caught in this web are residents of South Texas who’ve applied for passports or tried to renew them. One, a 40-year-old military veteran, was forced to provide documentation to prove that the information on his birth certificate, which was of course issued when he was a newborn, was really true.
The State Department told The Post that officials are targeting passport applicants “who have birth certificates filed by a midwife or other birth attendant suspected of having engaged in fraudulent activities as well as applicants who have both a U.S. and foreign birth certificate.” These applicants “are asked to provide additional documentation establishing they were born in the United States.”
There’s something cruel about the government’s trying to hold you accountable for verifying an event over which you had no say — your birth. After 40 years, you’d expect the burden to be on the government to prove a fraud took place, instead of on the citizen to prove it did not.
If they could, the xenophobes would force all of us to prove that our citizenship is legitimate. I believe this because during the many years I’ve written about Latino immigrants, I’ve had a few readers demand to know whether my parents came to this country legally. They were channeling Mr. Trump’s birther schtick long before Mr. Trump did.
My parents arrived in Los Angeles on a tourist visa in the 1960s. I was born four months later. I have a faint childhood memory of standing next to them at their naturalization ceremony. That makes me, according to the right-wing parlance of our times, an “anchor baby.”
Parents like mine, the mythology goes, are engaged in a conspiracy to extract benefits from American taxpayers for themselves and their progeny. I’m as much a part of the perceived problem as a baby born in the Rio Grande Valley to a midwife, or a “dreamer” who crossed the border as an undocumented infant.
At about the time Mr. Trump was being inaugurated, I wrote a work of speculative fiction in which I imagined his government stripping one million American Latinos of their citizenship. The real-life 45th president of the United States has shown himself to be an increasingly arbitrary and mercurial leader who, when under attack, lashes out against immigrants. It’s clear his movement to radically shift our nation’s immigration laws is just getting started.
Already, the administration is moving to reduce the number of legal immigrants who can become naturalized citizens, according to an NBC News report. And the president has demanded the end of “chain migration” and the “truly evil” people it brings into our country — even though his in-laws obtained citizenship thanks to an immigrant daughter who became a citizen because she married an American.
And one more conservative vote on the Supreme Court might bring the pro-Trumpian nativists closer to their long-held dream, expressed this year by one of his former aides: eliminating birthright citizenship, which was guaranteed by the 14th Amendment and affirmed in the 1898 Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Wong Kim Ark.
Time and again, Mr. Trump himself has laid bare the true motive for these nativist goals: racial engineering. He is the same man, after all, who launched his campaign by insulting the character of Mexican immigrants and who referred to African countries as cesspools once he was in the White House. He has made it obvious he wants a whiter America.
In response, I’m tempted to write a stirring defense of my immigrant people and their contributions to the American story. But I won’t do that. For starters, it’s clear we immigrants and children of immigrants could win the Medal of Honor, become an astronaut or win a Nobel Prize (actually, we’ve done all those things), and there would still be people who blame us for the country’s ills.
One of the great things about being an American is you can define the “pursuit of happiness” however you like. You have the right to be a loser. Or a flâneur. A libertarian or a vegetarian. A socialist or a survivalist.
Being American also gives us the right to use the Constitution, and the Enlightenment principles on which it is based, to defend our rights. Being an American gives me the right to say this: The United States is headed for perdition if we allow our government to strip hundreds of Texans of their citizenship.