Eric Foner: Born in the U.S.A. Is What Makes Someone American

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Eric Foner, whose forthcoming book, “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” is a professor of history at Columbia University]

For almost 150 years Americans have believed that anyone born here, whatever his or her origins, can be a good citizen. There is no reason to believe the children of illegal immigrants are any different.

Congress should think long and hard before tampering with this essential American principle embodied in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Approved by Congress in 1866 at the outset of Reconstruction and ratified two years later, the amendment establishes the principle of birthright citizenship. With minor exceptions, all persons born in this country are American citizens, whatever the status of their parents.

Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, several of his Senate colleagues and a number of conservative political commentators are now demanding that the amendment be reinterpreted or rewritten so as to exclude the children of illegal immigrants.

Bitter conflicts about who should be an American citizen are hardly new, nor are efforts to exclude those deemed for one reason or another undesirable. The very first naturalization law, enacted in 1790, barred non-white immigrants from ever becoming citizens. This prohibition was lifted for Africans in 1870 but lasted into the mid-20th century for Asians. In 1857, in the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared that no black person, free or slave, could be a citizen of the U.S....

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