The Birthright Act that is being considered by the new G.O.P. majority in Congress may force us all back to the Old Country -- that is, if we can find it.
A few years ago I was on a motor launch in the Bay of Naples and struck up a conversation with a man I'd met a day earlier at a literary event on the Island of Capri. He had a great job, managing the major outdoor festivals in the region. But that was just his day job.
His real claim to fame was his royal lineage. He was second in line (behind his older brother) to the throne of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, a monarchy that was overthrown in 1860 by Garibaldi and his tiny army of Redshirts. From that point on, Italy became unified under another monarchy - the House of Savoy, which had its roots in the north. In fairness to this young convention-manager, he wasn't obsessing over his lost throne. He seemed to realize that his title was a bit of an anachronism. He was resigned to the fact that the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies wasn't coming back anytime soon.
But maybe I shouldn't have been so dismissive. The way things are going in Congress, I may need to renew my acquaintance with him and find out if his old kingdom has any place that I can call my own.
I'm a citizen of the United States by virtue of the fact that I was born in Oakland, California. I have a birth certificate to prove it, and up to now that's been enough. Ever since the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1868, the fact that a person was born within the United States establishes him or her as a citizen:
"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."
But Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) and a large number of his colleagues want to change that. King's newly introduced "Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011" (H.R.140), would require a person born in the U.S. to prove that his parents were legally in the country at the time of his or her birth in order to become a citizen. The more I thought about that, the more I realized that I -- and millions of others like me -- would have to start packing our bags if this becomes the new legal standard.
Just exactly how do you prove that your parents were here legally? Will 300 million Americans have to traipse down to a government office and produce papers showing that their parents were documented residents of the U.S.? If we all try to do it simultaneously, that will be quite a line.
And what will you bring for proof? My father was also born in Oakland, but his birth certificate was wiped out in a basement flood in the County Building about ninety years ago. The County has issued a substitute certificate, but any red-blooded "Birther" would sniff his nose at that kind of a document as being inadequate. And even if I did have the original of my father's birth certificate, what difference would that make under the proposed law? My father never went through a process to become a citizen any more than I did. He didn't think he had to. If we change the rules now, his citizenship would be on just as shaky a ground as mine.
And what about my grandfather? There's a ship's manifest from the 1870's that seems to show that he was a passenger on a boat from Italy. Other than that, there are only a few census records showing that he lived in New York City before moving to Oakland. But citizenship papers? Not a one. I've made repeated requests to various federal and state agencies and have always gotten back the same response: they have no record of him. Like probably millions of other immigrants, he simply lived out his life in this country with no papers at all.
If you're keeping score on this, our family's total under Congressman King's new rules would be three generations of illegal immigrants stretching out over about 130 years.
I suppose I should get ready to leave. If my father and grandfather were alive, they'd probably have to join me on the boat that deported us back to ... to where, exactly? My grandfather was born in a town that is now part of Italy, but at the time of his birth it was part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
So, I hope I kept that man's card; I might have to ask him if I could join him. We could spend our lives sailing around the Bay of Naples as a pair of pretenders.
But wait, you say! That won't happen in my case! I could probably be grand-fathered in under the old rules (even though my grandfather probably couldn't be grand-fathered). Your case is different, the Congressional sponsors would undoubtedly say. We're not aiming this law at people like you. You've been here a long time, you're established, you're older, and -- there's another word we're looking for -- you're white.
That's very true. And it's also very, very sad.