by Barry Edelson




What every baby born in
America has in common

"Down among the reeds and rushes
A baby girl was found
Her eyes as clear as centuries
Her silky hair was brown

Never been lonely
Never been lied to
Never had to scuffle in fear
Nothing denied to
Born at the instant
The church bells chime
And the whole world whispering
Born at the right time"
– Paul Simon, "Born at the Right Time"

A child was born in America to foreign-born parents last week. The happy event occurred just a few days before another child of a foreign parent, who happens to be the President of the United States, released the official record of his birth, the latest but, sadly, probably not the last episode of a political kabuki that is not even worthy of farce.

The new baby's European father (who is the son of friends) and Asian mother first came to the United States as students. They met in this country and, like countless others before them, chose to make a life for themselves here. They are just the sort of immigrants the nation purportedly desires: well-educated, intellectually gifted, hard-working people who, over the course of a lifetime, will give much to our society and ask for little in return. If they are not exemplars of the American ideal, it would hard to imagine who is.

Their little girl, by virtue of being born on this soil, has something in common with the aforementioned President: both are equally qualified to hold the highest office in the land. (Though her parents are well advised to keep multiple copies of her birth certificate in various secure locations.) It is a uniquely American idea that the right of citizenship is bestowed upon anyone who just happens to be born here. To realize just how unique it is, one need only think of the plight of people throughout the world who are denied the right to be considered fully human simply because they had the misfortune to be born on the wrong side of some artificial line on the ground. Consider the tribal loyalties that tear at the fabric of nearly every African nation. Think of the millions of Turks in Germany who will never be considered German, no matter how many generations of their forebears were born on that particular soil. Imagine the plight of the stateless Kurds, the Uighurs of China, the Roma throughout Europe.

In this respect, America is truly and profoundly different. Though the origins of automatic citizenship are an historical anomaly — the intent being, of course, to prevent any Englishman from regaining dominion over the fledgling nation — it has become one of the brightest of all the lights that beckon migrants from everywhere to make their way here. It was taken for granted, in the 18th century, that anyone who would endure a lengthy, arduous, dangerous and expensive ocean voyage to come to these shores most likely intended to stay. From the beginning of our history, making the commitment to live an American life has been deemed enough to grant citizenship to the children of those willing to do so. Obviously, the Founding Fathers could not have conceived of an era in which travelers could make the journey here in a matter of hours from anywhere in the world. But neither they, nor any of the succeeding generations of Americans who witnessed the technological flowering that made such rapid travel possible, ever saw fit to tamper with this deeply ingrained element of the American experiment.

Until now. When the election of anyone other than a white man to the Presidency seemed a far-off prospect, the matter rested comfortably upon the collective view of most Americans, particularly whites and men. But now that the current occupant of the White House is not only the child of an alien father, but an African one, no less, a previously unseen restlessness has stirred among certain self-proclaimed patriots. Let no one be so callow as to believe that the moves by some legislators in the various states to require new proofs of citizenship for Presidential candidates has to do with anything but race. Or that the effort to deny citizenship to "anchor babies" — as if this were a grave national crisis — would have even been contemplated were the targets of these measures not predominantly people of color. Where are the protests against Scottish or Norwegian tourists going into labor at New York University Hospital? Respectable conservatives may demur, and see other, legitimate political cases to be made for the excessive dislike of Obama and the worsening climate of xenophobia. They are, frankly, kidding themselves.

Only a few years ago, many of the very same individuals who are wasting the people's time with the "birther" business, were proffering Constitutional amendments to remove obstacles to the Presidential aspirations of a certain Austrian-born governor of California. And have we already forgotten that the last Republican nominee for President was, technically and inarguably, not even born in the United States, but in the Panama Canal Zone, where his father was serving as a military officer? Yet, not one respectable liberal voice ever hinted that this disqualified the senator from Arizona from being President, even though the Constitution, while clear about the rights of citizenship of children born overseas to American parents, is anything but clear about the right of such a person to be President. Does anyone think for a single moment, if John McCain had won the election in 2008, that the same voices raised in passionate argument against Obama's right to hold his office, would be making the same case against McCain? Ideologies notwithstanding, there is only one difference between McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger on the one hand, and Obama on the other, and everyone knows it. As Mark Shields noted on PBS's News Hour yesterday evening, if Barack Obama's father had been from New Zealand, his place of birth would never have been an issue.

The Constitution is in many ways a maddening document, with many paths of interpretation that have confounded judges and legal scholars continuously since its adoption. But on the matter of this unique birthright, it says what it means and it means what it says: If you were born here, you are a citizen, and you can be President. End of story. Unless you happen to be among a disturbingly noisy and disreputable minority who would evidently prefer to see America ethnically cleansed and returned to an imaginary prelapsarian state, i.e., all white and all Christian (preferably Protestant). How inconvenient it must be for them that the Constitution does not allow it. How upsetting to see one's society sullied by wave upon wave of strange peoples with strange beliefs: Irish Catholics, Russian Jews, Japanese Buddhists, Arab Muslims. How tragic for our forebears to have gone to such lengths to rid themselves of the savages who happened to be in the way when they first arrived, only to be overrun by hordes of other lesser beings. And if they had known that the African slaves would some day be free, and that they would have to live among them, they might have thought twice about bringing them here in the first place.

It is profoundly ironic that, if Obama's ancestors had been black slaves, his birthright could not be questioned. Perhaps we will not fully confront this issue until we are faced with a Presidential candidate descended from the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the American states, an eventuality that would unleash racial discomforts as yet unfathomed. The newborn, multi-ethnic daughter of two PhD's can be expected to fare much better. She will undoubtedly find her path easier in America than she would in either of her parent's countries of origin, a reality that should make us proud to be Americans. This is still one of the very few places on Earth where race and ethnicity have absolutely no legal bearing on the rights of citizenship. Getting the practice to match the theory has been a long and bloody struggle, and it's clearly far from over. But, in case anyone missed it, we did in fact elect to the highest office of the most powerful country in the world someone who is, as he has described himself, "a mutt". We are all mutts, as DNA research has already convincingly debunked the myth of race. Mutts of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your delusions of racial purity.

April 30, 2011


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