Birthright citizenship, illegal immigration and my Aunt Rose
08/04/2010 - 13:16
James Besser

My great aunt Rose came to America in the early 1900s, a refugee from Czarist Russia, and family legend has it she arrived smuggled in a trunk.

By any standard, she was an illegal immigrant – yet she didn't behead anybody and leave the body in the Arizona desert and she didn't fraudulently get welfare services. She went on to a productive life in America, working for almost a half century in the millinery industry, paying taxes and contributing to – and ultimately benefiting from – Social Security.

I'm wondering how many of the Jewish success stories we hand down in our families would have turned out differently if the constitutional amendment now being discussed in Republican circles had been in place back then. Rare is the American Jewish family without illegal immigrants rattling around in their genealogical closets.

Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) want to change the 14th Amendment, which – among other things – gives citizenship to children born here to immigrants – legal or illegal.

“Birthright citizenship” is becoming a hot political issue as politicians seek to exploit growing anger about illegal immigration.

The 14th Amendment, in case you've forgotten your history, was ratified in 1868, after the Civil War; its primary purpose was to grant citizenship to slaves and their descendants, but it also applied to immigrants who came here without benefit of papers.

Which included a heck of a lot of our Jewish ancestors; in so many ways, today's thriving Jewish community owes at least some of its successes in America to that willingness to absorb newcomers, both legal and illegal.

I know: things are different now; jobs are scarce, governments are strapped for money and can't afford services for illegals.

Which is pretty much what anti-immigration forces were saying a century ago, when some of our own ancestors were sneaking across the Canadian border, or coming to America in trunks.

I wonder how Jewish groups will react to the proposed changes.

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All such discussions seem to eliminate the true moral question of what is right under God and that should be part of the equation. Both Jewish and Christian scripture teach that a child is inseparable from the family unit. From slaves to immigrants to those who lack the power to control their own lives in dicatorships, the first thing oppresors do is establish control over children by taking over all the rights and duties of parents and replacing them with state control over their education and future. It is not possible to make a child a citizen of another country and a ward of that state according to our respective teachings. The only choice is expelling the family as a unit or including the entire family in citizenship. The fact that some families use their children as bargaining chips for all kinds of reasons does not make it less of a sin.