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Drawing Imaginary Lines in the Constitution: the Economics of Citizenship

Conservative lawmakers kicked off the new legislative session with a grandiose reading of the Constitution in the House this week, and then quickly settled down to shred its most important provisions. The new Republican House majority is abuzz with proposals to undermine a woman's right to an abortion, widen the country's vast inequalities in wealth and health, and brand Muslim Americans as enemies of the state.

Near the top of the agenda is dismantling the 14th amendment's birthright citizenship clause. Anti-immigrant hardliners are downright obsessed with this provision conferring citizenship on anyone born in the United States.

Continuing a colorful tradition of immigrant bashing during hard times, the new jingoism spreading through the Capitol and state legislatures is a potent mix of populist scapegoating and racism swaddled in nationalist theatrics.

Now that conservatives have upended the educational aspirations of undocumented young people by killing the DREAM Act, they're now going after the babies of undocumented workers. Removing citizenship from these children, born on American soil, they argue, would deter migrants from trying to enter illegally and settle here (hence the “anchor baby” epithet). The constitutional argument is flawed on many levels. But the economic argument resonates powerfully with many Americans seeking a target for their anxieties over joblessness and the country's growing racial and ethnic diversity.

Yet, while the immigration debate is essentially about labor demand and supply and economic opportunity, conservatives seem remarkably fixated on a 19th century Constitutional Amendment and insist on detaching it from modern economic realities and concepts of social rights.

Here's what you won't hear echoing in the chambers of Congress: You won't hear about data from the Population Reference Bureau showing that that most Latinos in the U.S. were born here, that “half of all people added to the U.S. population in a given year are Latino, and this share will increase in the coming decades,” and that one of the greatest political challenges on the horizon will be finding a way to educate the next generation. No one's talking about the latest research on patterns of capital mobility, indicating that, contrary to restrictionist spin, global trade and migration may have a positive economic impact on native-born workers. And House Republicans will be studiously ignoring migration trends in Western Europe, where residents “experienced wage gains, on average, from immigration while they experienced wage losses due to emigration,” according to one recent analysis.

Not that all boats rise in this situation, of course. Positive macro-level data will provide no comfort to the middle-aged assembly line worker who can't instantly switch to a more skilled job. And in the absence of a strong transnational labor solidarity movement, the “productivity” growth from migration and offshoring will drive the ruthless exploitation of low-wage workers worldwide, in U.S. industries as well as their cheaper offshore counterparts.

Essentially, the real “immigration debate” is not the black-and-white, legal-illegal binary that the restrictionist camp has presented to a confused, angry citizenry. More immigrants don't translate directly into less jobs, “growth” is not synonymous with  “development,” and the winners and losers of trade and globalization reside on both sides of the trade deficit. The only real rule, it seems, is that those who have the least get less and less. Meanwhile, the political walls erected between newcomers and “natives”  artificially inflate a sense of entitlement, while blinding workers at the bottom to the upward sweep of wealth to the top.

The global rush by politicians to militarize borders and build fences, from the Southwestern U.S. to Gaza to Greece, reveals that arbitrary borders throughout history have been used, often in vain, to keep wealth and opportunity on one side, and the less fortunate on the other.

According to the International Organization for Migration, as the international migrant population swells into the hundreds of millions, governments and civil society have no choice but to rework immigration policies to fit a new dynamic of labor and civil rights.

Growing numbers of migrants from increasingly diverse backgrounds can increase diversity and cultural innovation, but can also make effective integration more difficult to achieve. … Mismatches between labour supply and demand will continue as labour surpluses increase and the demographic imbalance between the developed and developing world widens. To help prevent existing capacities from being put under strain by new migration challenges, it is necessary to take early action, to have partnerships between governments and State and non-State actors and to create policy coherence in migration management.

In other words, in a country that has defined itself as a destination for migrants since its inception, lawmakers have a long overdue moral mandate to begin crafting a more equitable immigration system.

So perhaps in addition to reciting the Constitution, the House Republicans should have also read aloud the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law,” and “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.”

And had they read between the lines of the 14th Amendment, they would understand the roots of the provision in the Reconstruction government's short-lived effort to undo black disenfranchisement. Elizabeth Wydra of the Constitutional Accountability Center points out that the amendment helped replace a regime of economic oppression with one that at least aspired toward equality:

Providing for birthright citizenship regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude... ensured that all native-born children, whether members of an unpopular minority or descendants of privileged ancestors, would have the inalienable right to citizenship and all its privileges and immunities. … This form of citizenship embodies the American rejection of aristocracy and privileged ancestry; under the Citizenship Clause, one's citizenship turns on an objective circumstance—place of birth—not familial status.

Far from protecting “rule of law,” the assault on the 14th Amendment threatens to resurrect the ugliest (and arguably “un-American”) forms of economic and racial injustice. While citizenship itself is a social construct, the House majority's constitutional distortions further pervert the legal-illegal dichotomy, by extending a nation's borderline into a family's bloodline. It cheapens national identity and racializes economic citizenship. Before America's workers are deluded again into drawing another arbitrary line of exclusion, remember that it wasn't that long ago that we all were on the other side.

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