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Do We Want to Be Like Kuwait? : Denying citizenship to the U.S.-born is un-American.

August 12, 1993|NIELS W. FRENZEN | Niels W. Frenzen is chairperson of the board of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

Gov. Pete Wilson has now joined the growing list of elected officials calling for a radical amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would deny citizenship to children born in the United States whose parents were not citizens or legal permanent residents.

The motives behind this proposal are political. Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Ventura) first raised it last year in part due to heightened anti-immigrant sentiment in communities like Agoura Hills (part of his former district), which sought to ban Latino day workers. Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Los Angeles) joined as a co-sponsor when he was forced to run for reelection in a new, more conservative district. Wilson now joins the fray as prospects for his reelection next year look dim.

While any benefit to the elected officials who call for the amendment will be limited to the next election or two, the full effect would be felt for generations to come, as the children of undocumented immigrants, and their children and grandchildren, were forced into a permanent sub-class, subject to expulsion at any time.

Wilson, Gallegly and Beilenson represent a cross-section of American politics and comfortably fit most people's definitions of moderate, conservative and liberal. But what they are proposing is radical, an attack on the principle that citizenship is derived from the place of one's birth. This principle is firmly rooted in centuries of Anglo-American tradition and long predates the founding of the United States and the enactment of the 14th Amendment in 1868. Tampering with that amendment would significantly alter a basic framework for our society and make us more like countries that do not deserve imitation.

Wilson's proposal resembles the system used in Kuwait and Germany (among others), where restrictive citizenship laws have created a permanent sub-class and led to social instability and tragedy, albeit to different degrees. Kuwait restricts citizenship to persons born to citizens, yet has long welcomed immigrant workers to do menial work shunned by Kuwaitis. Several generations of noncitizens have been born and lived their entire lives in Kuwait, knowing no other country. Many of these noncitizens were suspected of supporting the Iraqi invasion and expelled, despite their generational ties to the country. Germany, too, has long used Turkish and other non-German workers. As recession and reunification slowed Germany's economy, popular feelings turned against "immigrant" Turks even though many had been born and raised in Germany.

Both Kuwait's and Germany's failure to provide for assimilation of the children of immigrants through citizenship created a large disenfranchised population that, in the extreme case of Kuwait, has largely been expelled and remains stateless, and, in the more typical case of Germany, has been targeted for assault, arson and murder at the hands of racists. Fortunately for Germany, many of its elected officials have chosen to publicly combat anti-immigrant and racist hysteria, as opposed to here, where officials foment it.

Wilson's proposal would only serve to further indenture the existing sub-class of people who are undocumented and, much worse, condemn their unborn children to the same fate. The result would be deportations based on ancestry and not personal comportment. Our country would ultimately be faced with the necessity of deporting people born and raised here to a country they have never known. This is not only appalling; it is un-American.

The prospects for a nation turned to witch-hunting are terrifying. Still, we would never be able to track, find and expel every undocumented immigrant. Their presence in the United States is a result of many complex factors which cannot be addressed or prevented by doubling the size of the Border Patrol or by requiring every person in the United States to carry a national identity card.

Instead of trying to deal with the perceived problems of immigration by politically popular but facile and piecemeal proposals, our elected officials should be dealing rationally and humanely with this very complex issue. They must work to combat the rising anti-immigrant and racist sentiment and recognize that many of their proposals and media campaigns are fueling such sentiments.

The phenomenon of immigration, legal or illegal, does not begin and end at our borders. It has its roots in historical relationships between the United States and the various sending countries; it involves official economic and military policies toward other countries and the activities of private American corporations abroad. We must stop looking at immigration as a border issue and nothing more. Only then will we be able to identify which issues truly are problems and be able to begin grappling with the proper responses.

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