John Locke and Immigrant “Anchor Babies”

Each week it seems right wing extremists come up with yet another argument against immigrants of color, particularly those who have no papers and who cross the deserts or the Rio Grande along our southern border. The latest involves “anchor babies” and the 14th Amendment. Wow!

But, if one could — for only a moment– divorce it from the 14th Amendment and look at the issue of birth citizenship in terms of a thought experiment, you might agree it raises some interesting questions about consent in democracy and indeed is a worthy and perhaps important debate.

The question of whether children of undocumented immigrants who are born in this country should enjoy rights of citizenship is a centuries old  question about political membership and having voice, concepts which are the basis for our democracy, and which we should debate because they raise important questions of political identity and constitutionality.  This question finds its origins in the political writings of John Locke, an honorary founding father whose theories are embedded in the Declaration of Independence, and who is also a faux hero of the right because of his notion of property rights and minimal government.

Here’s what I think Locke would say about “anchor babies.” Regrettably, he likely would side against the idea of children born to undocumented immigrants getting citizenship.  Not on racial grounds of course but on the grounds of consent.  Locke believed that citizenship and membership into political society was based upon active consent, something that babies–regardless of where they are born–simple are unable to give. No babies are citizens. period.

Since Locke believed the legitimacy of the state came from the consent of the governed at the age of discretion (consent), citizenship is not conferred by birth. According to Locke, every person is born free and equal under authority of their parents. Since what government that person might obey is matter of consent, not birth, and  one cannot confer consent until they reach the age of discretion,then undocumented children would not be citizens. But neither would the rest of our kids.

For Locke, full fledged citizenship is attached to express consent, which is conferred by way of some  mark of allegiance (vows; oath) that pledges the acceptance of the form of the state (See his 2nd Treatise, Section 118-122 on citizenship) by express promise and compact.

So, if we strip citizenship from “anchor babies” we must also strip it from all children.  On the other hand, the bad news for “anchor babies” however is good news for lawful permanent residents who wish to become naturalized as citizens.  In fact, according to Locke, naturalized citizens are society’s only full fledged citizens.

That means– and I really want the right wingnuts to focus in on this, citizenship becomes a tiered status  with the top tier going to the millions of newly naturalized citizens, holding up their hands and taking the oath in mass ceremonies around the country.

The rest of us who were merely born here, gave what he referred to as “tacit consent” a second tier form of consent, which argues for second tier panoply of rights and privileges.

IN short, if the right wing wants to have this debate and the Glenn Beck’s among them will likely base some of the debate on classical liberal history, then let’s do it right.  If Locke is to be an inspired voice for the right-wingers in this debate, then get him right.  The tacit consenters among them (Glenn Beck, Rush; Senators Kyle, McCain…) must concede readiness to relinquish their own privilege and hand it to their Latino brothers and sisters who take the oath and expressly consent to our form of government.

If comprehensive immigration reform ever comes to pass, and it will, then 11-12 million undocumented immigrants will soon (in five years) rightfully take their place among the first tier of citizens, as our governing class.  And I take it that this scenario will have the right’s fervent support. right?


One response to “John Locke and Immigrant “Anchor Babies”

  1. Rob, while I agree with you that ideally we shouldn’t even consider any change to birthright citizenship, I think I agree with an idea that’s been floated: I would be willing to amend the 14th amendment to exclude automatic citizenship for children of people either not citizens or legal residents IF the amendment included the revocation of corporate citizenship; this would give us a chance to fight the power of corporate money without the damned Supremes stepping in. Would you be willing to consider this tradeoff?

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