Birtherism Returns as the Perpetual Foreigner Stereotype Continues

In our pilot episode, we discussed the perpetual foreigner stereotype and characterized it as primarily affecting the Asian American and Latinx communities. Based on our research at the time, it seemed as that was the case but we overlooked one strong phenomenon: birtherism. It remains true that race in the United States is viewed as a binary- you’re black or white, you’re American or foreign. Our description of the perpetual foreigner stereotype as only applying to the Latinx and Asian American communities was wrong. With the return of birtherism, all it takes is to be a close descendent of an immigrant to be a perpetual foreigner. 

Birtherism, like the Coronavirus-related racism, is rooted in the perpetual foreigner stereotype. The term birtherism refers to the political obsession with the birthplace of Former President Barack Obama and his personal background, his religion in particular. One of the most vocal proponents of birtherism was President Donald Trump. He’s now recycling birtherism and adapting it to the recent Democratic Nominee for Vice President, Senator Kamala Harris. The conspiracy argues that Senator Kamala Harris may not be a citizen because both of her parents were immigrants, and depending on their immigration status at the time of her birth, she might not qualify. Senator Harris, who could be not only the first female Vice President but also the first Black and Asian American to fill the role. She was born in Oakland, California to her father Donald Harris of Jamaica, and her mother Shyamala Gopalan of India. 

In a White House Press Conference, President Trump stated:

I heard today that she doesn’t meet the requirements and by the way, the lawyer that wrote that piece is a very highly qualified very talented lawyer. I have no idea if that’s right I would have thought I would have assumed the Democrats would have checked that out before she gets chosen to run for Vice President. But that’s very serious. You’re saying she doesn’t qualify because she wasn’t born in this country.

After a reporter followed up on her question, President Trump replied “I don’t know about it I just heard about it. I’ll take a look” His son-in-law Jared Kushner would later argue that the President isn’t perpetuating it but just talking about it. Giving steam to the article questioning Kamala Harris’ citizenship via a White House Press Conference is a strategy of perpetuating the conspiracy without completely supporting it. This is a strategy of deflection the President has used frequently through phrases like “some people are saying” or “a lot of folks are saying”.

The conspiracy claims that Senator Kamala Harris may not be a citizen because both of her parents were immigrants. Supposedly, depending on their immigration status at the time of her birth, she might not qualify. The opinion article references moments in American history when children born on American soil were not considered naturalized citizens. 

Part of the 14th amendment to the Constitution’s citizenship clause states:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

While ratified in 1868 to grant citizenship to former slaves, the concept of birthright citizenship in the 14th amendment has not always been enforced. Fourteen years following the amendment’s passing, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 would prevent Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens and delegitimize the citizenship of their children born on American soil. Further, the United States v. Wong Kim Ark Supreme Court decision in 1898 cemented the 14th amendment’s citizenship clause to establish that those born on American soil are citizens. Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants and after returning from a trip to China, he was denied entry due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Wong Kim Ark’s legal challenge has solidified birthright citizenship which is an integral part to the development of modern immigrant communities in America. 

Without birthright citizenship, would I, someone of Chinese ancestry born in Pennsylvania, be a citizen? Would my other family members be citizens? Would you be? Would President Trump even be a citizen? After all, his mother immigrated from the United Kingdom. But he is white, Donald Trump is exempted from the perpetual foreigner stereotype. In 2018, an Axios interview featuring President Trump revealed his desire to end birthright citizenship with an executive order; and, on multiple occasions, he’s expressed urgency to execute that agenda. Although he does not possess the constitutional power to do so, the attacks on birthright citizenship and birtherism conspiracies should be alarming to all of us who either are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. As a nation built on colonized land, to all those who are not indigenous, we are a nation of immigrants but the attacks on birthright citizenship, however unconventional and surprising they might be, fit well within the President’s anti-immigration brand. 

Questioning the citizenship of someone who is a child of immigrants is a racist strategy to delegitimize their American status. Birtherism is predicated on the idea that although you were born on American soil, being the child of immigrants is grounds to call the legitimacy of one’s citizenship into question. This perpetuates the narrative that those of us who are descendants of immigrants are destined to forever be foreigners in our own country. In the United States, the perpetual foreigner stereotype bolsters white supremacy as it denies the acceptance of and serves to delegitimize the American nationality held by both immigrants of color and their descendants. The birtherism conspiracy attacks on Senator Kamala Harris reaffirms to me – that people of color, that no matter what we do, whether as an Attorney General, a Senator, or even a Vice Presidential candidate, there will always be people to question our Americanness. Those very same people can even grow to become presidents. 

*The image featured in this article is attributed to Gage Skidmore and used under these license terms. It was resized to fit 793 x 397 pixels. Captioned as “U.S. Senator Kamala Harris at a fundraiser hosted by the Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition at Jasper Winery in Des Moines, Iowa.”

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