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The 14th Amendment And The History Of Birthright Citizenship In The U.S.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right, as we've just heard, most constitutional scholars argue that an executive order like the one President Trump is proposing would violate the 14th Amendment. This is an amendment that was ratified after the Civil War in 1868. And it nullified an earlier Supreme Court decision that held descendants of slaves could not be citizens.

Martha Jones is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and has studied the history of birthright citizenship. She joins us now. Welcome.

MARTHA S JONES: Thank you.

CHANG: As a scholar of the 14th Amendment, what went through your mind when you first heard about the president's plan to basically end birthright citizenship?

JONES: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is that citizenship has really for all our history been a very contested question. Who is in? Who is out? Who belongs? Who does not? For me, I go back to the history of former slaves long before the Civil War who themselves are looking for a legal status that will help them resist what was called in the early 19th century colonization, a system of sort of deportation that aimed to remove former slaves from the country to send them to the Caribbean or Canada or West Africa. And so for me, there's something chilling about the news today because it is in some ways so familiar.

CHANG: And when you speak about that time, that is roughly the time when this whole notion, this idea of birthright citizenship started taking hold in the U.S.

JONES: Yes. And it really originates with former slaves long before the Civil War who are now free people, are building families, are building communities, are part of the engines of economic prosperity in the country but really occupy an ambiguous status before the Constitution. There was lots of debate about how to regard them, but they are clear that what they aim for, what they aspire to is birthright citizenship, a guarantee that they are permanent members of the body politic.

CHANG: So when there was talk about ratifying the 14th Amendment, how much resistance at that point was there?

JONES: The resistance to the 14th Amendment is not to the fact of citizenship itself, I don't think. It is the concern that really no one knows where that might take African-Americans. And for those Americans who even might have been critics of slavery but are bound to ideas that we today would call white supremacy, the prospect of African-American citizens makes the 14th Amendment very controversial.

CHANG: What is the argument for keeping this idea of birthright citizenship around today?

JONES: Sitting in the 21st century, we can look back and appreciate the way that birthright means we don't discriminate based upon religion; we don't discriminate based upon national origin or descent; we don't discriminate based upon political party affiliation. And this has, I think, strengthened and given us a kind of robust and diverse democracy that has been able, to an important degree though not completely, to resist many of the prejudices and bigotries that also run through our history.

CHANG: Martha S. Jones is the author of the new book "Birthright Citizens: A History Of Race And Rights In Antebellum America." Thank you very much for speaking with us.

JONES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.