August 4, 2010

The Fourteenth's not all about the Hispanics

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States has three clauses - this is about the citizenship clause. It's pretty specific, "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."

Most of us take our American citizenship for granted. Through some force of nature or whatever deity you acknowledge, most of us were afforded the rights of American citizenship by birth in the United States as provided in the Fourteenth Amendment. The amendment does not specify the status of the parents - all it says is that if you were born here, you're a citizen. Courts have held on several occasions that the children of persons in this country illegally are American citizens by birth.

The same rules also apply to persons here as students or as a result of their official duties for their home countries. Many children of foreign military members and diplomats enjoy American citizenship. You may remember a few members of al-Qa'idah who were captured in Afghanistan whose parents had been students at American universities when they were born - these jihadists had to be moved from incarceration at Guantanamo to U.S. prisons and afforded all the legal protections of American citizens.

There are hundreds of foreign military personnel attending training courses at military installations around the country. Many of them have children while here - these youngsters are American citizens by birth. I was reminded of this while assigned to the forward headquarters of the United States Central Command in Saudi Arabia during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Soon after I arrived in Riyadh and assumed my duties as General Schwarzkopf's Arabic interpreter and liaison officer to the senior Saudi staff, several of the Saudi officers (and one Egyptian) in the Command, Communications, Coordination and Integration Center (C3IC) sought me out - I had garnered the nickname as
al-amirki min yahki 'arabiyah mithl ibn balad (the American who speaks good Arabic). I took that as a compliment, although I knew at times they made fun of my Syrian/Lebanese accent. Since I spent a lot of time chatting with them in Arabic, they felt that they could ask me questions that might be regarded as sensitive - and they did.

One of the questions was about American citizenship. I was a bit puzzled by the question - were they looking for a civics lesson? I was soon to realize why they were asking and why it might be regarded as sensitive. They had heard that being born in the United States made you an American citizen. I said that was my understanding. They asked if it applied to their children born at military hospitals in the United States while they were in various training courses. I said that I was pretty sure that it did, but that I would check to make sure.

I called a friend at the defense attaché office American embassy in Riyadh, who confirmed it with State Department - the children born in the United States were in fact American citizens. I reported this back to the officers. A few days later, a Saudi brigadier general pulled me aside and handed me his daughter's birth certificate issued at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center, Fort Bliss, Texas. He asked if this was sufficient documentation to prove that young Hala, now 12 years old, was an American citizen. I told him I thought it was.

My friend at the embassy gathered the forms, I had the general fill them out and in about ten days I handed him a U.S. passport in his daughter's name. Then came the sensitive part. He asked if Hala could travel to the United States, were there visa requirements or more forms needed. I explained that Hala was an American citizen just like me, and could travel to and from the United States as she pleased.

I knew where this conversation was going. Many Saudi officers were looking for a way out of the Kingdom for their families. They knew that at some point in the near future we all would be in a shooting war with the Iraqis, and the Iraqis had missiles capable of hitting Riyadh. I can't say I blamed them for that. The general looked at me and said, "She is 12 years old - she cannot travel alone. My wife must accompany her. And if my wife goes, the other children...," ending with the Arab "what can be done?" shrug.

In the end, we arranged visas for the wife and children. I was happy to do it - Hala is an American citizen, by birth. Her parents were in the United States legally when she was born.