Defending the 14th Amendment

Document Date: August 19, 2010

The principle that everyone born in this country is a United States citizen is one of the sacred building blocks of our democracy. Enshrined in the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, it reflects America’s fundamental commitment to fairness. In America, citizenship does not depend on whether your ancestors arrived on the Mayflower or are recent immigrants to the United States.

Adopted in the aftermath of the Civil War, the 14th Amendment negated one of the Supreme Court’s most infamous rulings, the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which held that neither freed slaves nor their descendants could ever become citizens. The Amendment, which conferred the rights of citizenship on all who were born in this country, even freed slaves, was enacted in response to laws passed by the former Confederate states that prevented African Americans from entering professions, owning or leasing land, accessing public accommodations, serving on juries and voting.

The words of the Fourteenth Amendment are unambiguous: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” The intent of these powerful words was to put citizenship above the politics and prejudices of any given era, a goal that is as relevant and necessary today as it was at its passage.

The attacks on the 14th Amendment that are being mounted today aren’t new. Even prior to its passage, some people objected to extending citizenship to the native born children of various immigrant groups, but these objections were soundly rejected. They were rejected again in the late 19th century when Chinese-Americans came under attack, and they must be rejected today when Latinos are being targeted.

To define citizenship by bloodlines or lineage cuts against our nation’s most basic values of justice and equality. At some point, nearly all of our ancestors migrated to this country, either voluntarily or by force. And together we have fought to create a nation that thrives on diversity and one that values the principles of equality and fairness enshrined in our Constitution.

It seems almost unimaginable that anyone would question the 14th Amendment’s promise of citizenship to all people born in the United States. After all, it is this promise that has helped to shape our nation, creating a society in which there is no permanent underclass to be denied the American promise, and in which all stand equal before the law.

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