In 1960, a newly-married couple from a foreign country crossed the longest unsecured border with the United States, got pregnant and had a baby who immediately became an American citizen courtesy of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
That foreign country would be Canada. That couple would be my parents. That brand new geographically-lucky American would be me.
To be clear, Mom and Dad came to the United States legally. Both were Canadian citizens; Dad got a student visa to study for his doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Minnesota. Both he and Mom were classified as resident aliens.
Still, when I came along in 1961, the Travis Clan got its very first American. We had plenty of Canadians, Hungarians, Russians, even a few Icelanders and German-accented branches. But Americans? Nope. Not one Yankee Doodle Dandy. I became the 57th flavor in our Heinz 57 Mixed Breed Family Tree.
I write this as the issue of “anchor babies” is the hot topic among GOP Presidential hopefuls. An anchor baby is supposedly a child delivered by a non-American mother on American soil, immediately guaranteed citizenship and then with that child’s status the parents can lobby to stay here in this country, too, even if they came here illegally.
There’s much debate about whether “anchor babies” is even a real thing. Some suggest that, even if a child is born in the US to parents who shouldn’t legally be here, it would take decades for that child’s citizenship to help those parents gain legal status. Others claim having an American baby could help delay deportation proceedings for the parents, although there are thousands of children just like that in foster care because the government deported their parents after all. It sounds like having an American baby is no guarantee of citizenship for anyone, except that baby.
The 14th Amendment is the part of our Constitution that guarantees “birthright citizenship.” Interestingly enough, Canada is one of the few other countries that has a similar law. Now some are calling for that Amendment to be repealed. Sen. David Vitter wants to change the Constitution so that only babies born to at least one U.S. citizen or holder of a green card would qualify as an American. I often wonder what would have happened to me if the 14th Amendment had been repealed in 1961.
Mom and Dad went on to have three more children, each of them automatic Americans as well. We moved to Athens, GA in 1967 when then-Governor Lester Maddox pushed through an increase in the budget for higher education. The University of Georgia added dozens of new assistant professor possessions. Dad got one of them. Despite his segregationist history, I always had a soft spot for Gov. Maddox.
When Dad knew he’d get tenure and his American college teaching and research career took off, he became a naturalized US citizen. Years later, Mom joined the club.
Dad says having four American children didn’t make any difference in winning approval for his citizenship. But I often wonder whether we would have eventually gone back to Canada if I hadn’t automatically become the first American in the family.
I wonder how many other patriotic families we would have missed out on without the Fourteenth Amendment.
I was no anchor baby. And I didn’t grow up to be an anchorman. Just a reporter. But I love this country as much as any descendant of John Smith or George Washington. It’s the greatest in the world, largely, I believe, because we take the best the world has to offer.