Citizens

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POLITICS NOVEMBER 21, 1994

Citizens

I flew to Oregon to pick pears with migrant workers. We had a month to kill, and wanted an adventure that combined rugged physical exertion with a hint of social conscience. But the expedition ended badly. When we arrived in Medford, suspicious foremen, convinced we were muckrakers or immigration agents, insisted they had no work. After a week of rejections, we were reluctantly hired by a small company, and soon discovered why we were the only American citizens in the field. We reported to the orchard at 6 a.m., were given a flimsy ladder and a wooden crate, and picked the pears one at a time, removing the stems to make sure they didn't puncture other pears in the crate. Working side by side, my friend and I managed to fill half a crate after three hours. Then the foreman came by and summarily rejected our entire crate because it had too many puncture marks. Starting from scratch, under the piercing sun, we managed to fill an entire crate by 3 p.m., which earned us $19.35 each. At this point, the foreman begged us to quit; we were slowing down his operation and bruising his crop. When we insisted on returning the next day, he became belligerent, and rejected our punctured fruit more aggressively than ever. After a week of Tantalus-like exertions, we had earned, between us, less than $200. Nevertheless, we felt lucky. Several weeks before we arrived, a worker had fallen out of a tree and twisted his back. Instead of treatment, the company gave him a bus ticket back to Mexico.

Proposition 187, which would cut off public benefits for illegal aliens in California, including education and non-emergency health care, is obviously unconstitutional under the Supreme Court's Plyler decision, which said that Texas violated "fundamental conceptions of justice" when it excluded the children of aliens from free public schools almost twenty years ago. Supporters of Proposition 187 concede that it's inconsistent with Plyler, but the composition of the Court has changed, and they want to force the new justices to reexamine the decision. Although their economic and political arguments are specious (see "Don't Panic," p. 7), their constitutional intuition, that the Court has gone too far in eroding the distinction between aliens and citizens, can't be so easily dismissed.

The text of the Constitution draws clear distinctions between citizens and aliens. The first sentence of the Fourteenth Amendment, passed after the Civil War to overrule the infamous Dred Scott decision and to enfranchise newly freed slaves, confers citizenship on "all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof." The second sentence goes on to distinguish between "the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States," which include a broad range of substantive civil rights and benefits, and the narrower guarantee of "the equal protection of the laws," which is extended to all persons, aliens as well as citizens. The Court's innovation in the '70s and '80s was to erode the distinction between citizens and aliens by holding that aliens are entitled to many of the benefits that previously had been reserved for citizens alone.

In Citizenship Without Consent, Peter Schuck and Rogers Smith argue that the Court, by steadily expanding the substantive rights of aliens, has contributed to the "devaluation of American citizenship." They make a liberal case for reinvigorating a consensual ideal of citizenship that requires mutual agreement between the national community and the individual immigrant. The framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, they argue, intended to make birthright citizenship for the children of unassimilated Indian tribes--the closest nineteenth-century analogue to undocumented aliens--a matter of congressional choice rather than constitutional prescription. (During the congressional debate in 1866, one representative worried that if the children of "Chinese and Gypsies" were to become birthright citizens in California, then "the day may not be very far distant when California, instead of belonging to the Indo-European race, may belong to the Mongolian.") Schuck and Smith, in other words, would achieve by judicial interpretation the radical result that Governor Wilson would achieve by a federal constitutional amendment: denying automatic American citizenship to alien children born on American soil. At the same time, Schuck and Smith would soften the blow of their proposal by removing the bureaucratic obstacles that discourage aliens from becoming citizens in the first place. Their book provides a rallying point for liberals who think 187 goes too far but are nonetheless sympathetic to the impulse to resurrect the distinction between citizens and strangers.

Nobody is confused about his or her status on my favorite t.v. show, "Are You Being Served," the low-rent British import from the 1970s which Peter Bradshaw of The Modern Review recently celebrated as the most politically incorrect sitcom in history. The setting is Grace Brothers, a fading London department store where the characters cling to their petty hierarchies and prerogatives. Twenty years ago in England, the show struck a chord for its send-up of the class system; what makes it seem so radically fresh and liberating on pbs reruns today is that it manages, without a hint of self- consciousness, to reduce every character to a wild sexual or ethnic stereotype. There is the shriekingly effeminate menswear assistant, Mr. Humphries, who flutters about exclaiming "I'm free!"; the geriatric proprietor, Young Mr. Grace, whose pacemaker overheats whenever one of his bosomy nurses bends over; and the Fagin-like accounting assistant, Mr. Goldberg, who chants and sways as he adds up his ledgers. All of the Japanese customers have clicking cameras, all of the black customers are African chieftains, and every physical peculiarity--from Mr. Rumbold's huge ears to Mr. Granger's truss--is a source of relentless exaggeration and derision. The sublime crassness of the show is exemplified, as The Modern Review notes, by the famous exchange when Miss Brahms complains about the quality of the underwear she has to sell, and Mrs. Slocombe retaliates by confiscating her padded bra.

Mrs. Slocombe: I will not have you knocking my knickers.

Miss Brahms: And I'm not so keen on you nicking my knockers!

But behind the wide lapels and abject sexism, there is a poignant innocence to the hermetically sealed world of Grace Brothers. Because all the characters have a firm sense of who they are and who they are not, and because they wear their identities and vulnerabilities so close to the surface, they can ridicule and insult each other mercilessly without threatening their grudging ties to each other. Each episode is a pro-immigrationist's nightmare: a community that seems ultimately open and tolerant precisely because its boundaries are closed.

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posted in: politics, mexico, united states, california, oregon, texas, peter bradshaw, peter schuck, rogers smith, supreme court

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