Truth Be Told

My upcoming book with Dr. Soong-Chan Rah titled "Unsettling Truths - The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery" is now available for pre-order from InterVarsity Press.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Immigration Reform and the Birthright of American Citizenship

On Monday August 18, Donald Trump released his Immigration Reform proposal. One of the more interesting components of his suggested policy is to end our country's practice of birthright citizenship, which is the granting of citizenship to anyone who is born within our borders. As has been the pattern throughout his entire campaign, the elevated rhetoric of his proposal drew a line in the sand and served as a lightning rod in the broader national dialogue. Other GOP candidates who are also known for their controversial statements, like Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, have aligned themselves with Mr. Trump and echoed his call to end birthright citizenship. While on the other end of the political spectrum, candidates and immigration reform advocates have pounced on this proposal, decrying it as racist, and specifically targeting immigrants of color from our southern borders. Some voices have gone even deeper and discussed the historical roots of birthright citizenship noting that it was adopted from a common practice in English law and affirmed in our Constitution through the 14th Amendment. The same amendment that served as a reversal of the Dred Scott ruling, which intended to keep blacks from attaining US citizenship.

However, there is another component of the birthright citizenship discussion that is sorely missing from both sides of this debate.

“Under what authority is the birthright of US citizenship rooted?”

Statue in Grant Park in Chicago, IL
"To Christopher Columbus Discoverer of America:
'By the grace of God and in the Name of her majesty
Queen Isabella, I am taking possession of this land.'
October 2, 1492"
Beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1492, the lands of North and South America were “discovered” and colonized by the nations of Europe who were armed with a doctrine of the Catholic Church. Essentially, this “doctrine of discovery” stated that European nations had the right to discover, exploit and gain profit from any lands (and people) not ruled by Christian rulers.

Common sense tells us that you can only discover lands which are uninhabited. Otherwise your actions would more correctly be classified as stealing. So claiming the right of discovery over lands that are inhabited requires dehumanizing the people who are already there.

 In 1823, as a very young United States of America was struggling to create a legal framework that justified its existence in lands it had stolen and committed genocide to inhabit, the Doctrine of Discovery was used as the legal grounds for land titles.
"As they [European colonizing nations] were all in pursuit of nearly the same object, it was necessary, in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other, to establish a principle, which all should acknowledge as the law by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was, that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession."
(1823 United States Supreme Court - Johnson v. M'Intosh)
In plain English, what the Supreme Court said is that any European foreigner who was here before any other European foreigner, could discover land, claim title to it, and take possession of it for their respective nations. By using the language of discovery instead of the language of theft, the dehumanization of Native peoples through the discovery of our lands was established by the Supreme Court as the legal precedent for land titles. And initially in this country, the right to vote, a fundamental right of any US citizen, was based on land ownership.

The birthright of American citizenship is rooted in the racist concept of discovery.

As a Native man, I am definitely not opposed to the idea of reexamining this dehumanizing legal construct. However, I am quite certain that is not the conversation Mr. Trump had in mind when he articulated his immigration policy.  But if our nation was honest, on both sides of the political aisle, the mere mention of birthright citizenship in reference to immigration reform should generate some very awkward dialogue regarding the foundations of our nation, and who is and who is not properly documented.

Statue near US Capitol in Washington, DC
"To the memory of Christopher Columbus
Whose high faith and indomitable courage
gave to mankind a New World."
Immigration reform is an incredibly complex issue for a colonial nation of immigrants to address.  And the highly partisan and politically charged environment of a Presidential primary campaign is definitely not the proper place for such a conversation. This dialogue will require collective wisdom, broad participation, incredible humility, and an abundance of raw and honest reflection.

It is my firm belief that any attempt to comprehensively and justly reform our nation’s immigration law must include the voices of the indigenous peoples of this land. Without Natives at the table, all we have is one generation of undocumented immigrants trying to decide what to do with another generation of undocumented immigrants, and there is no integrity in the conversation.

This past year the Black Lives Matter movement has worked to expose some of the hidden racial bias of our nation. And the racially charged rhetoric of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is literally forcing our country to make a decision - do we keep racism as our national implicit bias, or do we allow him to champion it as our explicit bias?

I would like to offer a third alternative.

Let’s deal honestly and directly with our nation’s unjust racial bias.

Georges Erasmus, an aboriginal leader from Canada said, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created."

I think this quote gets to the heart of our problems regarding race in the United States. As a nation we do not have a common memory. We have a dominant culture that remembers a history of discovery, expansion, opportunity, and manifest destiny. While many of our minority communities have a lived experience of genocide, slavery, broken treaties, stolen lands, relocation, Jim crow laws, boarding schools, segregation, internment camps, mass incarceration, empty apologizes, and unprecedented institutional violence.

The original injustice of the United States of America is the Doctrine of Discovery. It was this doctrine that allowed the nations of Europe to colonize Africa and enslave African people. And it was this same doctrine that allowed Columbus to get lost at sea, land in a “new world” inhabited by millions, and claim to have discovered it.

The Doctrine of Discovery is a systemically racist doctrine that assumes the dehumanization of natives and blacks. And we have embedded this thinking deep into the foundations of our nation. Our Declaration of Independence perpetuates it. Our Constitution is influenced by it. Our Supreme Court references it. And the memory of our dominant culture is blinded by it.

It is the Doctrine of Discovery that keeps our nation from forming a common memory and, therefore, from experiencing true community. As individuals, and as a nation, we need to acknowledge it. Study it. Teach it. Renounce it. And ultimately, turn from it.

Until we do, we have little hope of ever becoming the just and freedom-loving nation we publicly proclaim to be.

Other Resources:
  1. On September 4, 2015 a documentary on the Doctrine of Discovery, produced by Sheldon Wolfchild and co-directed by Steven Newcomb (author: Pagans in the Promised Land) is scheduled to be publicly released. Visit 38 Plus 2 Productions to learn more about this film.
  2. In a blog article “The Doctrine of Discovery- A Buried Apology and an Empty Chair” I educate about the Doctrine of Discovery and propose the idea for a “Truth Commission,” a series of national conferences beginning in Washington DC in December of 2016. These conferences would attempt to create a common memory through educating people on the Doctrine of Discovery and teaching an accurate history of the United States of America. It would also provide a platform for survivors of Indian boarding schools and other historical injustices to share their stories. For more information you can visit my website (, follow on TwitterFacebookYouTube or Instagram (user name wirelesshogan) or subscribe to the “Truth Commission” email list.


Mark Charles said...

If our nation was honest, on both sides of the political aisle, the mere mention of birthright citizenship in reference to immigration reform should generate some very awkward dialogue regarding the foundations of our nation, and who is and who is not properly documented.

Daniel Groot said...

Hi Mark,

I've been reading your work on this blog and other places for the past few months. Working with underresourced communities in the U.S. (specifically in SoCal) and also around the world I've become specifically passionate about immigration reform. But you have made this conversation even more complicated for me! I'd love to hear your thoughts (both idealistic and maybe more pragmatic) on what immigration reform actually looks like from a Native American standpoint?

Thank you for the work you do.