Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Trumping birtherism


The aliens are landing

The so-called "birther" movement is an odd one. Generally composed of fringe conservative extremists, this group of people is vehemently certain that the current President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, is in office illegally.

Their rationale for this is that he isn't an American citizen. He just isn't, they insist. It's obvious.

From the plains of Kenya

The birther argument is nebulous at best, kludged-together at worst. Not only was his father not an American citizen, but he spent most of his formative years in Indonesia as the adopted son of an Indonesian citizen.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution states that anyone born on American soil is an American citizen, guaranteed. Let's take a look at Section 1, which is the most (but not the only) relevant clause:
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. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The history of this amendment only makes its dragging through the mud by birthers all the more interesting: It was enacted in response to the Dred Scott case, in which the Supreme Court held that black people couldn't be citizens, in defiance of the already-passed Civil Rights Act of 1866. The addition of this amendment was essentially a slap in the face of the Court, delivered from a Congress intent on ensuring that the Civil War really was over.

Birthers hate the Fourteenth Amendment. There are a lot of reasons for this.

The Fourteenth Amendment to to the Constitution states that anyone born on American soil is an American citizen, guaranteed.

They're coming for you

In general, the birther movement appears to be a natural outgrowth—or side-tumor—of anti-illegal-immigration sentiment. Of course, when one says "anti-illegal-immigration," one really means "anti-Mexican." Our southern friends are notorious in some circles for creeping over our borders, sneaking into our beds, and stealing away in the penumbra dawn with our jobs.

It's why a wall is being built along our border with Mexico, why there are armed vigilantes roaming the great southern wastes a-horseback, and why Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County is what he is.

It is also, interestingly, why the state of Arizona passed a law last year making it legal for law enforcement agents to demand proof of citizenship upon suspicion of illegal activity. By which one means, of course, looking Mexican.

Unfortunately, all of this is complicated by the simple fact that it is, in fact, possible to both look Mexican and be an American citizen. And you don't even need to be a wizard to accomplish this. One of the most common ways of pulling off this magic trick is naturalization; the second most common is, of course, being born here. And a lot of Mexicans are born here. They get called "anchor babies."

Anchor babies really bother these guys.

Run, white boy, run

The vein of xenophobia that runs through our culture is undeniable and has a lot of basis in history. It's not just that we enslaved black people; we also purged the world of the scourge that is the American Indian, told the Irish that they Need Not Apply, convinced the Chinese that we just needed them to build us a railroad or two, and gave the Japanese an internship or two.

All of this with a clause in our Constitution that says that these people, if they were born on our fortunate soil, are citizens and equal to everyone else under the law.

So it's not really surprising that now that a proud Nubian is President of the United States, the Fourteenth Amendment suddenly becomes a lot more relevant for some people. The reasons why are the stuff of pure speculation; who can say? Maybe they're afraid the brown people are taking over. Maybe they secretly envy his prowess on the basketball court. Maybe they're afraid their wives will watch the State of the Union and wonder to themselves if it's true what everyone says about black men.

Either way, this amendment is key to the birther argument; specifically, the first sentence. Let's take a look at the moving parts.

You'll wish you hadn't been born

It starts off by talking about people who have been born or naturalized in the United States. This is pretty straightforward. If the United States owns the land you were born on, it owns you.

Since Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, an American state, the conclusion is obvious. But the birther objections to this particular point run along two very different tracks and are peculiar in two very different ways. They are generally mutually exclusive; no birther currently extant (or at least covered by the media) appears to subscribe to both. It's usually one or the other.

Objection one: He was actually born in Kenya. The thinking behind the idea that Ann Dunham and the first Barack Obama would have gotten pregnant, spent eight idyllic months in the South Pacific, then flown halfway around the world in the last month of incubation so that their child would be born in Africa is puzzling at best.

This was 1961, mind you—even in those primitive days, it is safe to assume that Hawaii would have been a far superior place to give birth.

Objection two: Hawaii wasn't an American state at the time of Barack Obama's birth. We all know that Hawaii was awarded statehood in 1959 along with Alaska—it's the fiftieth star on our flag. So it's not that these people are completely ignorant of history.

No, they mostly figure that Barack Obama actually wasn't born in 1961. They think he was born in 1958 or some such year prior to Hawaiian statehood. This is one of the primary drivers behind the calls for a birth certificate.

Naturally, this is pretty dumb, mostly because Hawaii was an American territory for 60 years before statehood; it might not have been a full-fledged state, but its residents were legal American citizens, much like Puerto Rico today.

Your boss is on the phone

The other part of the first sentence is actually fairly significant: " ... and subject to the jurisdiction thereof ... "

What this means is that if your parents were agents of a foreign power in any capacity at the time of your birth, you are not eligible for citizenship even if you're born on U.S. soil. This applies to, for instance, children of diplomats and foreign heads of state.

The general thinking in this case is that the President's father was a citizen of the United Kingdom and its colonies. Therefore he was an "agent," though of what government, I can't figure out. Which kind of makes me a little excited; I'm an American citizen—does this mean I get to traipse off to Canada and apply enhanced-interrogation techniques in order to figure out why poutine is even possible?

The smarter birthers note that the senior Obama was a governmental economist for Kenya, which means relatively little in the bigger picture. He wasn't working for the Kenyan government at the time of the President's birth; he was going to college on a scholarship offered by a program that allowed bright young Africans to pursue Western education opportunities.

Those sound like some pretty good bootstraps right there.

Unfortunately, it all means, to some, that the President's an anchor baby. And we all know how folks feel about those.

He says quit or be fired

When all else fails, birthers often point at Obama's time in Indonesia. His mother, an anthropologist, had fallen in love with a Javanese surveyor and once she'd graduated with her B.A., moved to Jakarta with her kid in tow. He was six years old at the time.

He was ten when he came back to Hawaii. Stories abound about what happened in Indonesia: had his stepfather legally adopted him? Had he therefore lost his U.S. citizenship? Was Barack Obama an illegal immigrant?

The answer, of course, is no. Legally speaking, once you have your citizenship, there are only two ways—and I do mean only two ways—you can stop being a citizen of the U.S.:
  1. Fraudulent naturalization. This barely counts, because technically speaking, once your fraud is found out, a declaration is issued that you were never a citizen in the first place. It's like an annulment, only without the Grey Goose and Vegas.
  2. Voluntary relinquishment through a renunciation process specifically established by the State Department. Given that the kid was six when he moved to Indonesia, one wonders if, even had he gone through the process, it would have been valid. I don't think so.
But all of this ignores the key document: the birth certificate.

Your papers, citizen

Why is the birth certificate so important?

Generally speaking, it's central to the argument that the President was not born in the U.S., which is the central argument of the birther movement. It's easy to forget this, because when you try to pin them down, they end up wriggling their way through pretty much everything else in this post. When they're calling in reinforcements that have only the most tenuous relationship with the original point, you start to suspect that maybe things aren't quite kosher here.

But I'm drawing a line between this particular movement and the anti-illegal-immigration legislation passed in Arizona, as well as all the other things we hear about coming out of the Southwest. Looking at history, it's fairly typical: We don't handle difference well.

It's all over

So now that President Obama has released his Certificate of Live Birth, therefore proving conclusively once and for all that he is, in fact, not an alien from Mars—or worse, Kenya—or worser, Mexico—things are pretty well settled, right?

In this age of Photoshop, you'd have to be an idiot to think otherwise. Hit up Google—I don't feel like offering links to this nuttiness—and you'll find people talking about the "layers" in the electronic copy released by the White House conclusively proving its fakery, to say nothing of Orly Taitz and her ilk claiming that because the words "birth" and "certificate" in "certificate of live birth" are switched around, it's not actually a birth certificate.


You're in trouble now

The funny thing is that technically, the birthers are correct. Not that he's ineligible for the Presidency, but that his citizenship constitutes some muddy waters.

It's more than just the fact that his father was not an American; it's the fact at at the time the President was born, the senior Obama was a citizen of the United Kingdom and its colonies.

UK citizenship is automatically conferred upon the children of male UK citizens, regardless of where they're born. Therefore, Barack Obama II was born a dual citizen, of both the United States and the United Kingdom. Some birthers argue that this automatically revokes the "natural-born citizen" clause in Presidential qualification; others say it's a load of hooey.

The point is moot in the best way, though; when Kenya won independence in 1963—two years after he was born—Obama's UK citizenship was converted to Kenyan citizenship.

So yes, the President was a Kenyan citizen. I hope you noticed the "was." The Kenyan Constitution prohibits dual citizenship in adulthood, so when Obama turned 23 and failed to renounce his allegiance to the U.S. and swear an oath to Kenya, he lost his Kenyan citizenship.

...the President was a Kenyan citizen. I hope you noticed the "was." The Kenyan Constitution prohibits dual citizenship in adulthood, so when Obama turned 23 and failed to renounce his allegiance to the U.S. and swear an oath to Kenya, he lost his Kenyan citizenship.

I'm sure he's real bummed about that.

So keep it down

In general, the entire movement is irrational, easily-refuted, and, in some cases, irreversibly out to lunch. Unfortunately, there's no telling them that.

Was the President doing the right thing when he knuckled under and released his birth certificate last week? Probably not. What most people forget is that he already did this—three years ago!

They didn't shut up then, and they're not going to shut up now. This makes his decision fairly puzzling, until one considers the fact that a particular candidate for the GOP nomination—whether or not you take this person seriously—has made a lot of birthery noise in recent weeks. He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named now has some credibility, since he's forced the President to respond, but one wonders how the game will play itself out before next year's election.

Either way, birthers are like that old guy mumbling to himself on the subway. Just ignore them and maybe they'll go away.


Jim McCarthy is a deaf graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of South Florida and is currently a student in the School of Life and Human Folly (SLHF).

1 comment:

  1. What's the online equivalent of throwing panties at a blogger? Quick, someone tell me, 'cause I'll do it right now.

    Aside of being a nicely pat rundown of the birther debate and the moot-ness of trying to engage or quash that debate, this is fun to read. "Internship." Ha.