Tuesday, August 25, 2015

American Citizenship

But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.” The tribune came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.” Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.  (Acts 22:25-29)

On at least two occasions - the incident in Jerusalem cited above and an earlier incident in Philippi (Acts 16:37-39), Saint Paul publicly invoked the fact of his Roman citizenship - a status which the local authorities felt constrained to take seriously. And when the Roman Tribune who questioned Paul in Jerusalem acknowledged that he had paid a considerable sum to acquire Roman citizenship for himself, Paul proudly retorted, "But I was born a citizen."  

One of the things that has made America so exceptional has been the primacy of an American civic identity which coexists with Americans' other inherited national, ethnic, racial, and linguistic identities. Generally speaking, most modern national states have an identity which is inherently bound up with an inherited national, ethnic, racial, or linguistic identity, which somehow helps to define both the state and its citizens in terms of their Frenchness, Germanness, Italianness, etc. In contrast, the United States has from the beginning cultivated a distinctive civic identity, shared by all citizens regardless of their inherited national, ethnic, racial, and linguistic identities. One key component of this shared American civic identity, of this experience of Americanness, is the fact that American citizenship is automatically acquired by those who are born here, whether their parents were themselves born here or came here as immigrants (as almost every American citizen's ancestors did at some point).

This has been a guiding principle for much of this country's history. When the infamous Dred Scott decision denied citizenship to African Americans in 1857, Jone Justice argued in dissent: At the Declaration of Independence, and ever since, the received general doctrine has been, in conformity with the common law, that free persons born within either of the colonies, were the subjects of the King; that by the Declaration of independence, and the consequent acquisition of sovereignty by the several States, all such persons ceased to be subjects, and became citizens of the several States.

It was to undo that justly derided Dred Scott decision that the 1866 Civil Rights Act aimed to declare citizens all those born in the United States (with certain specific exceptions, such as Indians who were then still considered primarily as members of other sovereign nations). This position was ultimately incorporated into the Constitution in 1868 in the 14th Amendment, which famously states: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction therefor, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

That is the brighter side of the story. A sadder, darker side of the American story is the periodic appearance and persistence of anti-immigrant nativist movements, as the descendants of yesterday's immigrants seek to close Lady Liberty's Golden Door shut against today's immigrants and their children. Nativism is one of those curious constants in this nation of immigrants' otherwise inspiring story. Just recently, for example, I have been reading Paul Moses, An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015), which recalls the 19th and early 30th-century hostility of early generations of New York Irish against the more recently arrived Italians. Particularly interesting is his account of the hostile reception Italians received from their clergy and co-religionists in the Irish-run Church. (The rest of society also treated the Italians badly in that era when progressive opinion endorsed then fashionable theories about superior and inferior races and nations.) How much more defenseless would Italian and Jewish and other immigrant groups have been had they not benefitted - as all immigrant groups have benefited - from the American legal tradition of Birthright Citizenship.

Birthright Citizenship has had a particular relevance for my family story. What little family lore I learned growing up all came form my immigrant non-citizen grandmother. My grandparents and their children came to the US in 1920 at the tail end of the great wave of Italian immigration. At some point in the mid-920s, my grandparents and their younger children returned to Sicily for several years, while the two oldest children had remained in New York. But, before they went back, my mother was born in New York in 1922 - a native-born American citizen. Eventually, in 1930, my grandparents and the younger children (including my mother) returned to America in order to reunite the family. By then, of course, entrance into the United States had become much more restricted. But, because my mother was an American citizen, they were able to get back in.

If America is the land of e pluribus unum - one identity out of many nationalities, races, religions, and languages - that one identity has in large part been possible because of the common American citizenship that has been the first benefit of being born in this free country.

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