Immigration turns out to be Trump card
SAY you are a pregnant woman on a flight from Buenos Aires to Manila with a stopover in New York City, and that after landing in JFK airport, you are rushed to the hospital where you give birth to a healthy child. Congratulations!
And your child who was born on American soil would be able to apply for United States citizenship and eventually even invite you and the other members of the family to live in the US and to become American citizens as well.
Indeed, it is a policy called birthright citizenship, which allows you to become a citizen of the US simply by virtue of being born there, even if your parents are not citizens. The practice is based on a provision codified in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, which declares: "All persons born…in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States."
Those who passed the 14th Amendment in the aftermath of the civil war in 1866 believed that it would affirm the citizenship of the children of former African slaves as well as children from certain immigrant populations that were considered, at the time, to be undesirable, including the Chinese in California.
In fact, one of the opponents of the birthright citizenship, Pennsylvania senator Edgar Cowan (1815-1885), warned that it could allow children of Chinese immigrants to become US citizens. "(I)s it proposed that the people of California are to remain quiescent while they are overrun by a flood of immigration of the Mongol race? Are they to be immigrated out of house and home by Chinese? It is utterly and totally impossible to mingle all the various families of men, from the lowest form of the Hottentot up to the highest Caucasian, in the same society."
But the citizenship provision of the 14th Amendment is now being challenged by Donald Trump, the business executive who has emerged as the leading Republican presidential candidate, as well as by other public figures, who are calling for an end to automatic citizenship for those born in the US to illegal immigrants (or undocumented workers).
In a way, the arguments against the birthright citizenship provision have become the focal point of a growing national debate over US immigration policy, with Mr Trump asserting in a position paper he recently issued that the practice "remains the biggest magnet for illegal immigration".
He insists that most countries have more restrictive immigration policies than the US and that the automatic birthright citizenship process is an anomaly. It creates incentives for Mexican women to cross the border into the US to deliver their baby to ensure that he would become an American citizen.
Supporters of the birthright citizenship counter that it is indeed a unique American tradition that reflects the nation's commitment to open its borders to new immigrants and integrate them into society. Mr Trump and other opponents of the policy, they contend, have embraced the xenophobic and nativist approach that senator Cowan and other anti-immigration politicians have been advancing throughout American history. In the 19th century, they blamed America's problems on Chinese immigrants; now they are targeting those arriving from Mexico.
In fact, it is the issue of immigration that has helped advance the presidential candidacy of Mr Trump who, when he first raised it two months ago, suggested that illegal immigrants from Mexico were not only outcompeting American workers "and beating us, economically", but were also becoming a threat to the American way of life.
"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best," he said. "They're sending people that have lots of problems... They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists - and some, I assume, are good people."
In the aftermath of the address, politicians in Washington and media pundits predicted that Mr Trump's candidacy was doomed, that the tone of the language of his comments - especially the use of the term "rapists" to describe Mexicans - would force him out of the presidential race. In fact, NBC announced at the time that, "due to the recent derogatory statements by Donald Trump regarding immigrants", it would no longer broadcast his Miss USA or Miss Universe pageants. Ouch!
But if anything, Mr Trump's attacks on illegal immigrants helped energise his campaign and eventually turned him into the Republican presidential front runner, who is now leading in all the polls among Republican voters and is gradually emerging as a serious rival to presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
While public opinion polls suggest that the majority of Americans continue to support opening US gates to immigrants from all around the world, it does seem that the current situation under which more than 11 million illegal immigrants - most of them from Mexico and Central America - are now residing in the US has produced a powerful political backlash.
Many of these illegal immigrants tend to be poor and uneducated, gravitating to low-paying jobs and putting downward pressure on American wages. Some businesses benefit from cheap labour, upper-class Americans can save money on maids and lawn care, but many middle- and lower-class Americans lose jobs to the undocumented workers.
At the same time, America's schools lose funds teaching kids of illegal immigrants, hospitals lose money in charity treatment of these immigrants who do not have medical insurance, and police departments have to deal with the large number of violent crimes perpetrated by these immigrants.
There is also a growing sense around the country that unlike immigrants from, say, China or India, many of the Hispanic immigrants are not learning English and not integrating into American culture, creating concerns that the US is turning into a bilingual nation: Latinos v Anglos.
And finally, the illegal immigrants broke the law by failing to go through the long process that legal immigrants - including those who come from South and East Asia - are subject to. Hence the scepticism among Americans about "amnesty" plans that would permit illegal immigrants to acquire US citizenship.
Such plans were proposed by President Barack Obama and are backed by the majority of Democratic lawmakers and a few Republicans like former Florida senator Jeb Bush (who is married to a Mexican immigrant), who had been regarded as the Republican presidential front runner until the immigration debate started propelling Mr Trump to the top of the list.
APPEALING TO AMERICANS
And there is no doubt that by harping on the immigration issue, Mr Trump continues to tap into sentiments that are popular among Americans.
He already released a detailed plan, titled "Immigration reform that will make America great again", in which he called for more immigration officers, tougher penalties for visitors who overstay their visas, a pause in the issuing of new Green Cards, the end of birthright citizenship and the construction of "a big, beautiful, powerful wall" (as he put it in an interview with Fox News) across the border with Mexico, which, he insists, would be paid for by Mexico.
If the Mexicans refuse to pay, President Trump would impound remittances from illegal Mexican workers.
One indication that his views are popular among Republican voters is that his fellow Republican presidential candidates - including two Cuban-American senators, Marco Rubio from Florida and Ted Cruz from Texas - have joined him in supporting ending the birthright citizenship practice.
At the same time, Mr Bush - who is fluent in Spanish and tends to highlight his family ties to Mexico, and who was regarded as a leading proponent of an approach aimed at embracing the illegal immigrants and attracting more Hispanic voters to the Republicans - seems to be losing political momentum.
That has led many Republicans to express concern that their party will continue losing the support of Hispanic voters, who are becoming the fastest-growing electoral group. But Mr Trump's supporters point out that Hispanics do not vote by large numbers and that their candidate's tough stand on immigration could draw the support of the large majority of white voters who still dominate the electoral process.
And in any case, if President Trump succeeds in stemming immigration from Mexico and deports many of the illegal immigrants back to that country, the Republicans will have fewer Hispanic voters to contend with in future elections.
THE BUSINESS TIMES