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Biden press conference grilling on border crisis misses something: What we owe immigrants

Many European countries grant citizenship to the descendants of groups wrongly denied membership or expelled from their borders. The U.S. should do the same.
Image: Deportation from Texas to Mexico
Central American migrants recently expelled from the United States gather at the Paso del Norte-Santa Fe international bridge, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on March 18.Herika Martinez / AFP - Getty Images

President Joe Biden’s first press conference since taking office was dominated by questions of immigration, the southern border and how to deal with a flood of unaccompanied minors seeking to enter the United States. The barrage of questions Thursday indicated the urgency in resolving an issue that has roiled America for decades — and in fact can only be addressed by confronting that longstanding history.

Many of the U.S. government’s citizenship and immigration enforcement policies have illegally discriminated against immigrants from Mexico, Central America and Asia.

Beyond the newest arrivals who want to make the United States their home, some 11 million undocumented immigrants have spent years in limbo under continual fear of deportations. Biden has said he’d like to create a pathway to citizenship for most of them, and the U.S. House recently acted on that by approving legislation creating that pathway for about 4 million undocumented immigrants.

Included in the Democrats’ plans are 1 million undocumented farmworkers and 2 million younger immigrants, known as “Dreamers,” who were brought to the United States by their parents as children. But there is considerable opposition to granting them citizenship, particularly from Republicans, who are calling for greater measures to be taken at the border to keep more foreigners out.

As the Democrats and Republicans joust over these issues and the White House and Congress struggle to find policy solutions, there is an overlooked reason why undocumented immigrants should immediately receive legal status and a path to citizenship: The United States owes it to them.

Over the past 150 years, many of the U.S. government’s citizenship and immigration enforcement policies have illegally discriminated against immigrants from Mexico, Central America and Asia — the same countries whose citizens now make up more than 80 percent of the undocumented population. Many European countries grant citizenship to the descendants of groups wrongly denied membership or expelled from their borders as restitution for these past wrongs. The United States should do the same.

The historical record is clear. In the 1930s, the United States government deported or coerced hundreds of thousands of people of Mexican descent into leaving the United States, 60 percent of whom were U.S. citizens. (In 2005, the state of California apologized for its role in mass removals, describing them as “fundamental violations of ... basic civil liberties and constitutional rights.”) In the 1950s, the federal government deported another million individuals of Mexican heritage under the offensively titled Operation Wetback, often without regard to whether those being removed were citizens.

Race-based naturalization and immigration laws also targeted Asians. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited immigration to the United States by most Chinese nationals, and the law was expanded in 1917 to bar entry to nearly all Asians. Until as late as 1952, federal law excluded some Asians from naturalization based solely on their race. Chinese people were effectively denied even birthright citizenship under an official governmental policy requiring them to produce at least two white witnesses to their birth on U.S. soil, an impossible hurdle for many.

Although these laws and practices were typically upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court — which in an 1889 opinion referenced the idea that Chinese immigration was an “Oriental invasion” posing a “menace to our civilization”— there is no question today that these racial restrictions on immigration and naturalization were illegal as well as immoral.

Citizenship as atonement for past government wrongdoing is not a new idea. European countries have actively sought to redress historic wrongs by granting citizenship to groups who were stripped of their citizenship or deported in the past. In 2015, both Spain and Portugal offered citizenship to Sephardic Jews — that is, Jews originally from the Iberian Peninsula, now Spain and Portugal — to atone for the decision 500 years before to expel their Jewish populations. Those seeking citizenship under these laws must prove their Sephardic lineage, but need not show that a direct ancestor was expelled.

In response to more recent history, Spain enacted the Democratic Memory Law, which allows the descendants of those forced for political or ideological reasons to renounce their Spanish nationality under Francisco Franco’s regime in the 1930s and after to apply for citizenship under a streamlined procedure. Likewise, Germany enables Jews and their descendants who lost their citizenship before and during World War II to obtain it today. (In the 1930s, Nazi lawyers cited racially restrictive U.S. citizenship policies as helpful precedent.)

Between 1907 and 1931, all native-born American women who married foreigners were stripped of their citizenship, and sometimes deported under federal law. Germany and France implemented similarly sexist laws. Unlike the United States, however, these countries now grant pathways to the children of these women to make amends for policies recognized today as both sexist and xenophobic. Although estimates are hard to come by, the total number of persons eligible for citizenship under the restitutionary laws and practices of these European countries likely amounts to millions of people.

The United States should likewise grant citizenship to its undocumented population as an act of atonement. True, undocumented immigrants living in the United States today are not all the direct ancestors of those denied entry or expelled in the past. But as Spain and Portugal have recognized when granting a pathway to citizenship to Sephardic Jews, such a direct connection is unnecessary. Harm inflicted upon a group based on group characteristics — be they race, religion or ethnicity — can be partially rectified by granting immigration and citizenship status to that same group.

For centuries, U.S. immigration and citizenship policies benefited the ancestors of many of those living here legally today while excluding immigrants from the same countries now overrepresented by the undocumented population. Biden should work with Congress to create an immediate pathway to citizenship not only to provide these immigrants a stable home in America, but to allow the nation to atone for its past wrongs.