This year we marked the 150th anniversary of the 14th Amendment in a strange way: with an assault on the idea of citizenship that is at the amendment’s core.
In June, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that it had launched a denaturalization task force to revoke the citizenship of and deport “people who should not have been naturalized.” A more aggressive attack against citizenship came a few weeks ago, when Michael Anton, a former national security official in the Trump administration, claimed in an op-ed in The Washington Post that U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants should not be conferred birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment, since, in his view, these children do not rightfully belong to the United States.
These attacks on citizenship are the latest chapter in the long history of the denial of citizenship in this country. While the Supreme Court upheld denials of citizenship based on race, first and most famously in the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which denied African Americans citizenship, nativist public officials have also used their discretionary powers to disregard the citizenship of other groups as well.
The experiences of Irish Americans in the 19th century and Mexican Americans in the 20th century demonstrate the fragility of citizenship rights, as well as the ways nativist and racist ideas have long been used to attempt to undermine them. Narrowing the scope of birthright citizenship is less about shifting patterns of immigration and more about allowing prejudice and intolerance to run loose. And in the end, the triumph of a nativist political agenda hurts all citizens.
The Irish were the first immigrant group that faced challenges to citizenship. As “free white persons,” the Irish could become citizens under the Naturalization Act of 1790. Also, unlike African Americans, the birthright citizenship of Irish Americans was never legally questioned.
Nonetheless, despite meeting the legal qualifications for citizenship, the Irish faced significant barriers to being accepted by the United States in the mid-19th century.