Ways of Seeing by Mary E. Mendoza: Citizenship’s fragility (for some of us)
In November of 2016, shortly after the election, I went to the home of some very good friends and I cried. I don’t cry easily, but at that moment, I worried for our country and for our standing in the world. I worried about the rights of people of color and about the ways that we could and would likely be targeted. And, as a Mexican-American woman, for the first time in my life I worried that my own security as an American had become incredibly fragile. I remember telling my friends that night that I worried that my own rights as a U.S. citizen would be revoked.
Nearly two years later, I am seeing headlines in the newspaper outlining the ways in which my concerns are coming to fruition for many people born along or near the U.S.-Mexico border. It turns out that in South Texas and in other border states, Mexican-Americans and other Hispanics are being denied the ability to get U.S. passports.
Just this week, the Washington Post reported that one of these people, a Latino man named Juan from Brownsville, Texas (and a U.S. military veteran) applied to have his passport renewed, but instead of getting a new passport a few weeks later, he received a letter from the State Department that said that agency officials could not provide a new passport because they did not believe he was a U.S. citizen. Juan has been one of many American-born Latinos in the Southwest who has been denied the ability to obtain a U.S. passport — one of the documents you need to prove your citizenship when you are hired to work in the United States and the one that allows you to leave and then re-enter the country.
On top of passport denials, some folks, including those who work in the Trump administration have supported proposals to repeal the 14th Amendment’s birthright citizenship law which clearly states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the state where they reside.” This clause guarantees people born or naturalized in the U.S. the right to vote, the right to come and go, and so much more. It grants people the right to renew their passport without a fuss.
We cannot allow birthright citizenship to be repealed. As historian Martha S. Jones recently wrote in her piece for the Washington Post, birthright citizenship is a vital protection against targeted racism — the kind of targeted racism we are seeing with passport denial. She argued that over the course of the past 150 years, “birthright has been affirmed, again and again, ensuring that no matter how racist the regime, the Constitution grants citizenship to all people born in the United States… [it] protects those born in the United States from arbitrary and politically motivated bars to citizenship, including race, religion, and party affiliation.”
With all that is flying across our screens and with so many new headlines each week, it is hard to keep track of all that is happening right now, but it’s incredibly important to try. Most people in Vermont (the second whitest state in the country last time I checked), don’t have to even think about this kind of thing. That’s white privilege. But I have to renew my passport next year and given that I was born in South Texas, I’m a little anxious.
Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history at the University of Vermont and the David and Dana Dornsife Fellow for Historical Work in the American West at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. She lives in Weybridge.
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