In today’s Leesburg Daily Commercial, Cal Thomas outlines his ideal vision for immigration policy in America. Thomas actually castigates Newt Gingrich – the current G.O.P. flavor-of-the-month – for wavering from a doctrinally pure position by daring to suggest that, under some circumstances, illegal immigrants should be offered a path to citizenship. In doing so, he exposes a rather awkward tension within the Republican Party over this perennial issue. For while cultural conservatives like Thomas hew to the stern, populist line of extirpating all human weeds from American soil, the economic wing of the party wants a source of cheap and readily exploitable labor, particularly for the agricultural sector (which specializes in the exploitation of all living things, including gullible consumers). More interesting still, however, is the willingness of Thomas’s ilk to shred the Constitution whenever it offends their delicate sensibilities. This is the kind of hilarious hypocrisy that makes the Daily Commercial worth reading solely for its entertainment value. To savor its deliciousness fully, a little background is necessary.
Of the three Civil War amendments, the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution has arguably had the greatest impact on our constitutional law. The 13th formally abolished slavery, finally ending the national abomination that had doomed the original document to failure. (Civil War is the ultimate failure of a political constitution. Lincoln made it very clear that his reason for prosecuting the war was to restore the Union. Reinstating the Constitution was the primary objective; abolishing slavery was a secondary, but necessary, condition for success.) The 15th theoretically gave the newly-freed slaves the right to vote, but once the Yankee-supervised honeymoon period wore off, it became a dead letter and a disgraceful hollow promise until passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. (And even then, southern states continued to craft clever ways of undermining the law and the constitutional provisions that underpinned it.)
The 14th was a much more complicated piece of work, so much so that debate continues to rage about what its authors intended in certain respects. The most controversial issue has been that of incorporation, which refers to the application of the Bill of Rights to the states (and, by extension, their political subdivisions) via the amendment’s Due Process Clause. To take one example near and dear to conservative hearts, it was the application of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause to the states that “kicked God out of the classroom.” (Local teachers like Jerry Buell of Mt. Dora still can’t get their heads around that one.) It took the Supreme Court decades to sort incorporation out, and it is still dealing with the open-ended and subjective implications of the related Equal Protection Clause, upon which so many civil rights advances depend, and not just for African Americans.
The broad language of these powerful clauses opens the can of worms labeled “evolving constitutionalism,” a truly horrifying prospect, according to the conservative right. For years they have been telling us that we must adhere strictly to the language of the written document, lest the courts (especially liberal courts) start reading their own preferences into law. One would think, then, that conservatives would have no qualms about the enforcement of constitutional language that is clear and unequivocal – utterly bereft of subjective ambiguities. The very first clause of the 14th Amendment provides a fine example of such language:
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.
The original intent of this language was to confer full citizenship rights upon those souls formerly regarded as chattels. But we all know what it means now: the children of illegal immigrants born in the United States are automatically American citizens, becoming the so-called “anchor babies” toward which other family members will inevitably gravitate. For reasons that we shall address in a moment, this outcome has become totally unacceptable to cultural conservatives, so much so that Cal Thomas treated us to the following delectation, with nary a trace of self-awareness:
If a child is born in America to illegal immigrants, that child should not automatically receive U.S. citizenship. (A court ruling reinterpreting the Constitution would be required to change the automatic granting of citizenship to children of illegal immigrants born in the U.S.) [emphasis added]
Whoops! The veil has slipped from the ugly facade of conservative rectitude. Of course, we’ve known all along that the conservatives’ argument for judicial restraint only applies to areas of the law with which they are comfortable. If they aren’t happy, stare decisis (adherence to prior decisions) and “strict construction” of the Constitution fly straight out of the window, tossed forcefully by prejudiced zealots. Roe v. Wade? A mistake; overrule it! The Citizenship Clause? Undesirable outcome; read it differently! And the Roberts Court has demonstrated a willingness to engage in precisely such activist behavior, as we saw in the 2008 decision that “reinterpreted” the Second Amendment by applying white-out to the Militia Clause that appears to warped, liberal minds to impose some restrictions on the right to bear arms. No thinking voter should ever take a conservative politician’s words at face value when they pontificate about strict constructionism. We are, however, at complete liberty to marvel at their ability to maintain a straight face while doing so.
Thomas could have exposed himself less by advocating an actual amendment to amend the amendment – as some of the Tea Party brain trust have already done – but he knows it’s far easier to change the Constitution in the courts. (The Tea Party folks haven’t been around long enough to figure out how the game is played, as we’ve seen in the debt debacle.) But a common question arises in either case: other than the right’s innate inconsistency, what lies behind this sudden disrespect for the Constitution? After all, no-one seemed to have a problem with the Citizenship Clause until quite recently. What’s all the fuss about?
Illegal immigrants are but one of several scapegoats for the propaganda arm of the corporate oligarchy. There has long been an unholy alliance between the business interests that really own the G.O.P. and cultural conservatives because social issues are the perfect means of distracting ordinary people from the concentration of the American Dream in the hands of a few. The last thirty years of our politics have really been a masterclass in social control, with the elite able to amass spectacular levels of wealth and income without a peep of protest – until now. And even today, in the aftermath of a near-fatal financial collapse, the majority of the American people remain highly receptive to the psychological manipulation of their betters. Christian conservatives in particular are the most easily led astray, yet their flock-like behavior in response to corporate sheepdogs facilitates the imposition of socioeconomic conditions that are decidedly un-Christian. Every churchgoer who votes for a Republican because of his firm stance against abortion is but another sucker for the corporate machine, aiding and abetting the diversion of further resources to the oligarchy – just what Jesus had in mind.
And the fangs of the sheepdog are on display in Thomas’s piece, warning us of the folly of showing any compassion toward these shiftless illegals, who came here to suck on the welfare teat. Apart from the bizarreness of anyone criticizing Newt Gingrich – a man who left his first wife while she was fighting cancer – for being too compassionate, Thomas’s vision is depressingly jaundiced. The contributions made by illegal immigrants to the everyday functioning of this country are simply ignored altogether, a mistake that several state legislatures have hopefully learned not to repeat.
While Arizona’s draconian anti-immigrant legislation garnered the most national attention, the experience of our immediate neighbor to the north is more relevant to our current discussion. Georgia’s strict regime against the hiring of illegals interfered with the state’s agricultural sector in a way that only rational minds could have foretold. Crops rotted in the fields as no “American” workers – even in the midst of a prolonged jobs crisis – materialized to toil under the hot sun. Who’d a ‘thunk it? Far from coming to this country for “just the goodies the U.S. government provides,” as Thomas would have us believe, these migrant farm workers are here to work. That’s something to think about the next time you say grace at the dinner table. And if you don’t think about it, you can rest assured that the agribusiness bean-counters will. We may struggle a little with the concept of gratitude, but we have no trouble at all understanding profit.
One of the ugly realities of American life is that we take freely from a class of human beings who perform tasks we are not willing to undertake, and then demonize them for their trouble. Are we really so small as a nation that we cannot even acknowledge the essential role played by the immigrant community by offering them a path to citizenship? (Thomas rejects Gingrich’s proposed local citizenship review boards on the grounds that they might be captured by liberals. Oh, the horror!) Is automatic citizenship for their children too much of a reward for their efforts? If so, how much harder should they work to deserve some recognition from the society they help sustain?
One cannot help but observe a striking similarity between the conditions of the migrant farm workers of today and the status of the slaves of our past. In both cases, powerful economic forces exploit a sub-class of human beings stripped of legal protections. It was quite fitting, then, for the newly-minted Republican House of Representatives, when it indulged in its show-and-tell farce of reading the Constitution to the chamber, to simply omit the notorious Three-Fifths Clause of the original document, which enshrined the inferior status of the negro slaves. We don’t do that kind of thing any more, do we? And from this cynical cognitive dissonance sprouts a fiendish corollary: when there are no sub-humans to recognize, what need is there for a Citizenship Clause?
Thus, the right-wing in America rejects evolving constitutionalism and serves up instead devolving constitutionalism. For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly grateful.