The midterms are a week away, and President Trump is swamping the national conversation with red herrings and distractions that will quickly disappear after the polls close. Nothing illustrates his floundering strategy better than his renewed call to end the Constitution’s guarantee of birthright citizenship—a desperate appeal to racists to help Republicans salvage their congressional majorities.
Trump may eventually issue an unlawful order denying the U.S.-born children of immigrants the rights of citizenship, and he may ask the right-wing Supreme Court to uphold it. Even if he doesn’t, the constitutional principle is worth protecting as Trump tries to poison the public against birthright citizenship with lies and misinformation.
But his revival of the issue is best understood as one of several rash abuses of power and public trust Trump has engaged in to change the trajectory of an election that had been focused on the genuine stakes of Republican rule, and is thus imperiling the party’s control of Congress.
Trump’s decision to send 5,000 military troops to the Mexico-U.S. border, a repulsive act of security theater aimed at dehumanizing asylum seekers thousands of miles away, is another such abuse. But no matter who wins the election, Trump will lose interest in the caravan on November 7, and his crusade against birthright citizenship will probably enter hiatus again, just as it did after the 2016 election. What Trump doesn’t want to change, but the election might, is the more abstract and sub-rosa ways he’s made America a hostile place for immigrants.
Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda has seeped into our national narrative, he has made it increasingly difficult to visit the country, obtain legal status, or become an American citizen—which is to say, he’s made it less welcoming.
There is no easy way to become a U.S. citizen, and under this administration even those who are born citizens have reason to worry. It didn’t even take an executive order. Latinos in south Texas are being stripped of their citizenship as the Trump administration penalizes those who were born to midwives, accusing them of ‘citizenship fraud. We are also confronting a “second wall,” one that isn’t touted at rallies, but one that nevertheless delays hundreds of thousands of eligible immigrants from becoming citizens and voters.
I always wanted to be a citizen of our country because I wanted to vote; it was my country and I wanted to have a say in our national life. You can imagine my excitement for the 2016 presidential election: it was the first time I would get to vote in a presidential election after living in this country for 20 years and—I thought—I would be helping to elect our first female president. My enthusiasm to cast my first ballot grew out of my patriotism.
When the returns came in, I couldn’t stop crying. This was not the America I loved and yearned to be a part of; it felt like betrayal. I wondered if my country was as committed to me as I promised I would be to my country when I took my citizenship oath. I realized quickly that to make good on my oath I’d have to renew my faith in the things that made me want to be a citizen in the first place. If I wanted to support and defend the Constitution, even, as now, from the president, I had to be more involved.
Trump’s presidency has been worse than his candidacy so I was right to have been dismayed. He has stoked archaic anti-immigrant fears to justify draconian policies. Trump distracts us with his rhetoric, but his administration has also moved to stifle immigrants with legal status too—quietly and with ruthless efficiency.
Under this administration, visas are being slashed and new rules created to unfairly cast immigrants as ‘public charges,’ to thwart their goals of becoming citizens. USCIS has stalled processing over 753,000 citizenship applications, without offering any explanation.
In July, the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA) released a report documenting the growing backlog of citizen applications under the Trump administration. Over 50 Congressional members sent a letter to USCIS scrutinizing the backlog and nearly 50 Mayors and County Executives demanded that the agency reduce the backlog as well as the waiting time for applicants, which goes beyond 20 months in some cases. On Citizenship Day, NPNA, Mi Familia Vota, the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, and a larger group of advocates filed a lawsuit against USCIS, based on a Freedom of Information Act request, to find out why this “second wall” exists, and to hold the agency accountable to the public. Their opposition to immigrants, including those with full legal status sends, the message that they aren’t really interested in rewarding law and order or doing things the ‘right way.’ This “second wall to citizenship” is an affront on our national values, a pretense for the xenophobia plaguing our country. We can change this by being welcoming to immigrants and electing those who share our values. The election can’t stop Donald Trump from engaging in reckless stunts along the border or issuing illegal orders, but it can begin to reverse the concrete damage Trump has done to immigrants already.
President Trump would have us believe that these midterm elections are about caravans, criminals, and dangerous immigrants. But they are actually an opportunity to redress the harms he is inflicting upon immigrants, and to create pathways for people like me to have full legal standing and citizenship in this country. The 753,000 citizenship applications that USCIS is holding onto are being denied the right to vote through this tactic. They need our votes, as do countless others whose voices are rarely represented in our political spaces. A Republican Congress won’t help them, but a Democratic one might.