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Immigration and Birthright Citizenship: Constitutional and Personal Narratives

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On Monday, President Obama spoke at the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the country. While the President is a master storyteller in his own right, NCLR did not wait for Obama's much-anticipated luncheon speech to focus on the power of narrative to illuminate fundamental, often complicated matters of immigration and citizenship. On a Sunday panel including filmmaker Chris Weitz discussing his new film, A Better Life, the American story was told as a story of immigrants.

A Better Life
focuses on Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir), a single father, gardener, and undocumented immigrant trying to ensure a good life for his American-born teenage son, Luis (played by Jose Julian). Among many other aspects of the life led by this father and son, the fact that Luis is an American-born, U.S. citizen child while his father is undocumented adds tension to their story. The film is certainly an engaging and powerful story in its own right -- you'll enjoy it however you feel about immigration policy -- but it also sheds light on two important points at issue in the ongoing debate over immigration and birthright citizenship.

First is the idea that undocumented immigrants attempt to achieve a "better life" in the United States by having American-born birthright-citizen children. Watch the fear, struggle, and sacrifice of the character of Carlos to know that merely having a U.S.-citizen child is no golden ticket to the good life. But even more than that, the myth of the "anchor baby" makes no sense. Under immigration rules, the American-born child of undocumented immigrant parents would have to wait until she was twenty-one years old before she could seek citizenship for her parents. And then the parents would have to return to their home country and wait ten more years to qualify for green cards. That's quite a long-term, circuitous strategy to legal status.

Perhaps more important, film narratives such as A Better Life show that the dreams of immigrant parents for their children, and the struggles of such children to make their own way and forge their own identities, are not just Latino, Asian, European, or African immigrant stories. These are American stories (something reflected in the fact that "A Better Life" is distributed by a major U.S. studio) about the American Dream. And it is no exaggeration to say that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides that "[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside," lays the foundation for the American Dream. Because of the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, all American citizens are equal and equally American. Whether one's parents were rich or poor, saint or sinner, gardener or investment banker, an American child will be judged by his or her own deeds.

While understanding the constitutional text and history supporting constitutional citizenship at birth for children of undocumented immigrants is unquestionably important -- read this issue brief for that story -- using the power of narrative to show that the American Dream remains a dream of immigrant families and their children allows these important messages to reach a wider, mainstream audience. Which is appropriate for a constitutional Amendment that is itself premised a broad, big idea: that all people are born equal, and, if born in the United States, are born equal citizens -- regardless of color, creed or social status.

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