Page: The dubious origins of Trump’s immigration scheme

Clarence Page

Viewed through the lens of America’s civil rights history, Donald Trump’s new call to repeal birthright citizenship chimes with an ominous ring.

Spoiler alert: It sounds like racism.

It sounds like the Supreme Court’s declaration in 1857 that African-Americans were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

That quote comes from the 7-2 decision written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the notorious Dred Scott case.

It declared that Scott, a slave, could not be a citizen because he was African-American and, slave or free, had no standing to sue for his freedom in court.

I bring that up because outrage over that awful decision led to the Civil War and the 14th Amendment, with which Trump now wants to tinker.

The amendment was passed in 1868 at the urging of Republican lawmakers to overrule the Dred Scott decision in honor of the late Abraham Lincoln.

Now it is Republican Trump, in his first position paper as frontrunner for the Grand Old Party’s presidential nomination, who wants to water it down.

Trump’s beef is with the Citizenship Clause, which states, “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 elegant simplicity of that clause troubles Trump, who attacks “birthright citizenship” as “the biggest magnet for illegal immigration.”

Actually, the biggest magnets for immigrants continue to be what they always were — jobs, freedom and an opportunity to succeed.

As jobs in this country declined in recent years, for example, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports that illegal immigration also declined.

But immigrants and other minorities offer an inviting target for demagogic populists, especially during times of economic hardship and sagging confidence in public institutions like government.

We saw that in the backlash against civil rights in the post-Reconstruction period and during the 1960s civil rights revolution.

We can see it in the anti-immigrant sentiments of the Know-Nothings before the Civil War and the anti-Chinese sentiment in the late 19th century’s immigration surge.

Critics of birthright citizenship argue that the 14th Amendment was intended to protect the rights of slaves, not immigrants.

But as Amanda Terkel recently recounted in the Huffington Post, birthright citizenship came up during the amendment’s spirited legislative debate, too. Yet it passed without exceptions for immigrants.

In the mid-1960s, Alabama’s Democratic Gov. George Wallace launched a new era of made-for-TV populist backlash politics with presidential campaigns on the heels of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil rights legislation.

Insisting that his gripe was with liberals, not black folks, Wallace rallied millions of mostly white voters in the South and the North to the idea that they, not long-segregated African-Americans, were the real victims of “permissiveness,” crime, busing, Godlessness and “briefcase-toting liberal big government bureaucrats” with their “racial quotas.”

Sound familiar? Trump may promote himself as political outsider who “speaks the truth” about a government that’s not working, but he didn’t invent that role.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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