Bethany Berger ’90, the Thomas F. Gallivan, Jr. Professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, delivered the annual Constitution Day Lecture on Sept. 17 in Olin Library’s Smith Reading Room. Her topic was “Birthright Citizenship on Trial — Immigration and Indigeneity.” Egged on by Donald Trump, the majority of Republican candidates have supported ending birthright citizenship. This talk looked at this 14th Amendment right, its constitutional origins, and the different things it meant for American Indians and immigrants.
Berger started her research on birthright citizenship after developing an interest in the different ways the system works for native people and immigrants, and the different ways the process works for these groups—and the similarities. The topic of birthright citizenship has become “unexpectedly open to debate,” she said, referring to the Republican presidential candidates. “They’ve opened a debate about the worth of birthright citizenship and whether we really have to do it,” implying that the U.S. is the only country that offers this path to citizenship.
Birthright citizenship in the U.S. came out of British Law, when British citizens immigrated to the U.S. If one was born in the U.S., you become a citizen, however this did not apply to slaves. However in 1968, the 14th Amendment was ratified and birthright citizenship became the law of the land, excluding children of Ambassadors, children of soldiers on U.S. soil (fighting against the U.S.) and Native Americans. Native Americans only became birthright citizens by statute in 1924. Although Asians could be birthright citizens, those not born in the U.S. could not become citizens until restrictions on non-whites naturalizing were lifted in the 1950s.
Richard Adelstein, the Woodhouse/Sysco Professor of Economics, introduced Professor Berger to the audience. Berger graduated from Wesleyan in 1990 with a major in government, and from Yale Law School in 1996. After law school, she became the director of the Native American Youth Law Project at DNA-Peoples Legal Services, which serves the Navajo and Hopi reservations, and later the Managing Attorney at Advocates for Children of New York. Her articles on legal history, race, gender and jurisdiction in federal Indian law have been cited in testimony to Congress and several briefs to the Supreme Court.
Berger showed a map of the world, highlighting the countries that do have laws in place to grant birthright citizenship. The Americas—South, Central, and North—were prominent. She asked the audience what these countries have in common. “They are immigrant nations; they are Colonial Nations,” she said. “People come here and make it great, and traditional people lose land,” she said, pointing out the paradoxical quality of the situation created by an influx of immigrants. In 1887, the Davides Allotment Act—divide up tribal lands, all Indians accepting a land allotment would become citizens—which started the boarding school for Indian children, so they would become “good citizens” and lose their native language.
In honor of Constitution Day, all educational institutions receiving federal funding are required to hold an educational program pertaining to the U.S. Constitution. The Friends of Olin Library annually supports and coordinates the event, which is free and open to the public. Pictured in foreground is Sam Rosenfeld, visiting assistant professor of government. (Photos by Will Barr ’18)
Read more about Berger here and past Constitution Day speakers here.