Until 1965, there were no numerical limits on immigration from countries in the Western Hemisphere, so the issue of illegal Mexican immigrants, which so alarms today’s critics of the 14th Amendment, didn’t arise.
The closest analogy in 1866 to today’s illegal aliens were immigrants from Asia, forever barred from American citizenship. The Chinese aroused considerable hostility among white Americans, especially on the West Coast, and with an eye on congressional elections, the amendment’s opponents charged that it would make citizens of Chinese children born in this country. The amendment’s authors didn’t retreat in the face of blatant racism. They chose their words carefully; when they wrote “all persons,” they meant it.
The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that birthright citizenship applies to every American-born child and equal protection of the laws to citizens and non-citizens alike. The key cases, decided in the late 19th century, were U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, which affirmed the citizenship of children born to Chinese immigrants, and Yick Wo v. Hopkins, which overturned a San Francisco law discriminating against Chinese-owned laundries.
The juxtaposition of the 14th Amendment with the bar on the naturalization of Asian immigrants long affected Asian-American life. In the early 20th century, California barred aliens ineligible for citizenship from owning land, so Asian parents transferred title to their homes and farms to their citizen children. Not until World War II was China given a quota (all of 105 persons per year) of immigrants eligible for naturalization. Only with the immigration reform of 1965 did Asians achieve the same status as other immigrants.
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