It was President Abraham Lincoln’s greatest vision that whether you were the child of a free slave, the child of a Confederate soldier who would renounce this country, the child of a president — or even the child of a serial murderer — you should be judged on who you are, not on who your parents were. The Union was about was making sure that we all have equal opportunity to invent ourselves.
The Citizenship Clause is the very first sentence of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
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.
An attempt to attack this provision is an attempt to attack the American dream. It’s not just unconstitutional, it’s un-American.
The truth is that the most fundamental purpose of the 14th Amendment was to correct the injustice that slaves and their children both were regarded as outside the notion of citizenship. The genius of Lincoln — and it’s really the greatest historical legacy of the Republican Party — is that all individuals were to be treated based on who they are, not who their parents were.
There is another provision in the Constitution, Article 3, Section 3, and it deals with treason. It says that “no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture, except during the life of the person attained.” This means in effect that whatever the “sins of the fathers,” they not be imputed to future generations. It’s embedded in our Constitution that whatever one thinks of the parents of children born within our borders, the parents’ acts cannot be held to punish their children.
The children of undocumented immigrants cannot be held “guilty” for their parents’ immigration violations, just like the children of slaves in a free republic are not born into servitude. That’s a very core American ideal: Our individual fate and destiny are not tied to that of our parents or relatives, and that we are all equal individuals.
The Citizenship Clause is not just a technical rule about citizenship. It reflects the most basic values of America and the American dream — that we all be given an opportunity to be who we are and to invent ourselves.
This clause and the ideals behind it are grounded in the notion that citizenship should not be determined by the changing winds of politics, but rather should be tied to core notions of equality and liberty. I would hope that before we start tinkering with what has served this country well since 1868, we stop to pause and recognize that citizenship and the value our society places on individuals should be outside the political process.