Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Deny Citizenship to Who?

Until today it had never occurred to me that the soldiers of the Confederacy had renounced their citizenship of the United States and that after the Civil War was over there was a question of whether they could regain their citizenship--they were traitors after all.

This subject came up in Harold Meyerson's column today in the Washington Post. He was discussing the latest wacko idea from the right: denial of citizenship rights to people just because they are born here. In effect, repealing the 14th Amendment. What Meyerson was saying is the 14th Amendment was just as much about bringing the Confederates back into the Union as it was bestowing citizenship on the former slaves.

Of course the reason Republicans are talking this way is because they know the demographics of this country are working against them. As Meyerson puts it, "they are trying to preserve their political prospects as a white folks' party in an increasingly multicolored land."

Meyerson concludes that the GOP has decided that to keep their base happy they have to keep attacking the Hispanics, so the only solution to the demographic problem is to deny them citizenship:

By pushing for repeal of the 14th Amendment's citizenship clause, the GOP appears to have concluded: If you can't win them over -- indeed, if you're doing everything in your power to make their lives miserable -- revoke their citizenship.

On this page last week, my colleague E.J. Dionne Jr. rightly noted that by attacking the amendment, Republicans seek to undo one of their party's greatest and most inclusionary achievements. Civil War- and Reconstruction-era Republicans took pains to ensure the citizenship not only of freed slaves and their children. They -- in particular, Abraham Lincoln -- also decided not to permanently keep millions of Confederate soldiers and sympathizers from regaining their citizenship.

The Confederates had renounced all allegiance to the United States. They made war on the United States -- the Constitution's definition of treason -- and, in an effort to keep 4 million Americans enslaved, killed more of our soldiers than any foreign army ever did.

Yet Lincoln was determined to make it easy for Confederates to regain their citizenship. By taking an oath to support the United States and its Constitution, Confederates were made Americans again.

Suppose, though, that Lincoln had been filled with the spirit of today's Republicans. The crimes that Republicans ascribe to today's illegal immigrants pale next to those of Confederate leaders and supporters (chiefly, treason). A Lindsey Graham-like Lincoln would never have let the Confederates regain citizenship. Moreover, he would have denied citizenship to their children and their children's children. A large share of the nation, certainly of the white South, would have drifted endlessly in a legal limbo. The current Republican Party, anchored as it is in the white South, would scarcely exist.

So, the question for Lindsey Graham is: Are you serious about revoking the citizenship of 4 million children, their children and their children's children? How about a package deal: Stripping their citizenship in return for stripping the citizenship of Confederate descendants. A sort of Missouri Compromise for our times. Bipartisanship in action.

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