Are we Americans, Donald and I?

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Under current law, Donald Trump and I are both American citizens by right of birth. Donald was born in New York City in 1946, and I was born in Middletown, Connecticut in 1947. But if birthright citizenship were retroactively revoked, it would take some archival research to determine our status, and (as I understand Mr. Trump's proposals about immigration reform) we might both turn out to be undocumented aliens.

My mother was born in 1918 in Dvinsk, in what was then Russia and is now Latvia. Her parents, who were both born in Russia, brought her to the U.S. in 1921, when she was three years old. As an adult, she voted in American elections and traveled on an American passport, but I haven't been able to find any evidence that she was ever formally naturalized.

My father was born in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1917. And his father was born in New York City in 1894. But his father's parents were both born in (what was then) Russia, and again, I haven't been able to find any formal record of their having been naturalized. I'm not sure about the status of my father's mother, who died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, when he was just a few months old.

As for Mr. Trump, his father was also born in New York City, but his paternal grandfather, Friedrich Drumpf, emigrated from Germany in 1885. The Wikipedia article says that Mr. Drumpf "became a naturalized US citizen in 1892", but adds (citation needed); it says nothing about the naturalization of his paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Christ, who was also a German immigrant.

Donald Trump's mother, Mary Anne MacLeod, was born in Scotland in 1912, and immigrated to the U.S. at some point before she married Fred Trump in 1936. Again, I've found no information about whether she was ever formally naturalized.

So both Donald and I have mothers whose formal claim to US citizenship appears to be underdocumented, and fathers whose parents (in his case) and grandparents (in my case) were immigrants who may or may not have ever been formally naturalized.

Retroactive repeal of the 14th amendment is not possible, or at least not plausible; but it's worth noting that in the absence of birthright citizenship, both Donald and I might turn out to be stateless aliens — along, I suspect, with a majority of the current population of this country.




  1. _NL said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 9:22 am

    I assume that whatever Trump says is mostly meant to be taken for signaling and attitude and only 10% or less for actual content. That's why he strips his vocabulary down to the most unambiguous terms of praise or condemnation: smart, dumb, loser, moron, winner, etc.

    He figured out he gets attention both good and bad for bad mouthing foreigners and immigrants, so he makes ridiculous pronouncements about his bravado and their perfidy. Once it gets hard to actually undo the statute and then he gets court challenges, he'll lose and move on to a new topic that gets more attention. The Supreme Court has been clear that birthright US citizenship can't be forcefully stripped, so Trump can bloviate but it's all a bluff.

    As a sidenote, I was born in St. Joe, MO. So were a few other notables, like Eminem and Walter Cronkite.

  2. mollymooly said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 10:01 am

    Reminds me of one definition of Jewishness: you are Jewish if your mother is. If you find out that a fifteenth-century maternal ancestor was only pretending to be Jewish, then you and all other maternal descendants are not Jews, and those who are dead have no opportunity to rectify the anomaly.

    Maybe Trump is not saying the law is wrong and should be changed and the change should explicitly apply retroactively. Maybe he's saying the law is right but is currently being interpreted incorrectly, the interpretation should be changed, and the change would automatically apply retroactively. A nice distinction, to be sure, except that in the US the established way to change the Constitution is not by writing new words, but by appointing new judges.

  3. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 10:36 am

    I infer from that there is no single comprehensive easily searchable online database of naturalization records, which doesn't mean the records aren't generally there and findable by pre-internet search methodologies if you know where to look and spend an amount of time and effort that has come to seem unreasonable in the internet era but was the way all genealogical research was done (either directly or by relying on the secondary-source work of someone who'd already done it the hard way) until quite recently.

    But just based on the formal position on his campaign website,, the Trump proposal seems at first glance to be only to eliminate birthright citizenship for the "children of illegal immigrants." So you would not need to establish that any given ancestor (or rather ancestress, because push comes to shove the physical location of the father at the time of the birth is not relevant to the physical location of the birth) was a U.S. citizen at the time of a given birth, only that the physical presence of the ancestress in the U.S. at the time of birth was legit. So e.g. evidence that myl's mother was properly cleared through Ellis-Island-or-equivalent at age 3 (not sure how they weeded out the toddlers who were proponents of polygamy or anarchosyndicalism?) would suffice. No doubt some opponents of the current status quo have different views of an alternative, and might want to deny automatic citizenship to those whose mom's physical presence in the U.S. was legal only because of e.g. a tourist visa or student visa or something like that that assumed her sojourn here was going to be temporary, but as I understand it most of those "you can come in, but only temporarily, and only for a specific purpose, and can't work legally while you're here" categories have evolved more recently than the time of arrival of the mothers of either myl or djt.

    One historical problem is that the category "illegal immigrants" was essentially an empty set in 1868 when the 14th amendment was adopted because the initial restrictions on immigration, even the modest ones of the Ellis Island era (well, modest if you weren't Chinese . . .) had not yet been enacted. I think a reading of the amendment that confers automatic citizenship even on those whose mothers shouldn't have been (but as a factual matter were) physically present in the US at the time of birth is a fair one (although it can be argued with a straight face that it's a separate issue from the one the Supreme Court has previously ruled on) and avoids a number of administrative hassles, but we shouldn't assume that the long-dead guys who enacted the amendment were taking a moral stance on a controversial policy issue that was not then on the table for discussion.

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 10:48 am

    Note also that some people, especially those who come to the U.S. when quite young, get naturalized without leaving a direct paper trail – in particular, while the details of the law have varied considerably over time it has usually been the case that when parents are naturalized, their children under such-and-such an age (if living with them in the US, not subject to a complicated custody dispute, etc) automatically become citizens at the same time without any separate paperwork needing to be done, and even without documenting at the time the names of the kids who are benefiting from the provision (although doing the latter is obviously a sensible precaution against later misunderstandings). Indeed, I once did some legal work for a federal prisoner who had been cautioned when pleading guilty that he would be deported upon completion of his sentence, because he and everyone else at the time believed him to be an unnaturalized citizen of Jamaica, but then a few years into his sentence (before I was involved – so I have the ancedote without claiming any credit) someone figured out that he'd automatically become a citizen when his mom had been naturalized a decade-plus earlier even though neither he nor mom had realized that at the time. And despite the fact that he had meanwhile acquired felony convictions sufficient to render any new naturalization application hopeless, the relevant catch-up paperwork was done and his belatedly-discovered citizenship status was accepted as legit by all relevant parties, including the Bureau of Prisons, which moved him from the "hand over for deportation upon release" list to the "send him to a halfway house in the Bronx" list.

  5. Guy said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 11:16 am

    The CGEL says "accusatives are also the only option for the left- and right-dislocation constructions (which are themselves characteristic of informal style)". It also goes on to specify that, in general, coordination can affect case depending on the speaker, but it seems to me that "are we Americans, Donald and I?" might be preferred in formal style by a lot of people who wouldn't ordinarily use "between you and I", even though I doubt most of these speakers would use nominative absent coordination (then again, I can only think of a handful of situations where a single dislocated personal pronoun is natural to begin with). What are others' impressions?

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 11:27 am

    This link gives "We're not so different, you and I" as one of the most overused cliche lines in movie dialogue, but also says the same basic line exists in "countless variants." I guess movie dialogue could be a semi-natural corpus to poke around in to see if you could find a "you and me" variant. See also (no completely parallel non-nominative examples, but gives "we're the same, you and me" from a tv sitcom).

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 11:31 am

    And consider this non-nominative example:

  8. Aelfric said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 1:49 pm

    The whole notion is silly, of course, but I love it when I hear "repeal the 14th Amendment." In practice, I think they merely mean amending the birthright citizenship bit. But I kinda like the thought of repealing it entirely–because the Bill of Rights is 'incorporated' against the states through the 14th Amendment. Were it repealed, New York could ban all firearms, Pennsylvania could establish Unitarianism as its state religion, and Oregon could begin quartering militiamen in private homes. Sort of fun, when you think about it….

  9. Eric P Smith said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 4:25 pm

    "Are we Americans, Donald and I?" and "Are we Americans, Donald and me?" are both accepted as grammatical by my ears. "I and Donald" and "me and Donald" sound less good, to me. I was taught in Primary School (Elementary School) that coordinated pronouns should come in the order: 3rd person, 2nd person, 1st person. A prescriptive rule, but perhaps a sensible one in order to achieve perceived politeness.

  10. Bill W said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 5:06 pm

    @ Aelfric: gay marriage, interracial marriage, abortion, contraception, unreasonable searches and seizures, cruel and inhuman punishment also come to mind.

  11. Whosyerlawyer said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 6:27 pm

    @Aelfric, @BIll W: New York has a Civil Rights law guaranteeing the right to bear arms (although it could be repealed, as it's only a statute). But Pennsylvania has long had constitutional provisions preventing an established church, and Oregon has a constitutional provision against quartering soldiers in time of peace. In fact, most of the federal Bill of Rights is mimicked in state constitutions, either because they predate the 14th Amendment, or because the "incorporation" doctrine was slow to develop, and has only been selectively applied.

  12. J. F. said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 7:15 pm

    He should get the Chinese to give each person expelled a Trumpchi 传祺 to drive off in. After all, he seems to believe his peerless negotiating skills are going to get the Mexicans to pay for a border wall.

    (Tsk. Shameless cultural appropriation of a Chinese cultural tradition.)

  13. Ken said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 8:54 pm

    I'm sure that rules would be set up to determine if someone is a citizen. We might say that a person is a citizen provided no more than one-sixteenth of their ancestry is suspect. Or if they could show that all of their grandparents were born in the country, regardless of their great-grandparents' legal status. We could add an exception for meritorious service to the Fatherl- er, to the nation during the Great War. There are any number of other historical precedents.

  14. K Chang said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 8:56 pm

    A few years ago I actually did study this issue of birthright citizenship. As this is not really language related I'll be brief: Birthright citizenship is NEVER DEFINED AS LAW. It's "dicta", i.e. an incidental decision in INS vs. Rios-Pineda. The TL;DR version: couple entered US illegally, husband caught, volunteered to leave, reneged and never left, so INS initiated deportation proceedings. Husband kept appealing, then wife gave birth, and kept delaying, then they reapplied claiming INS should reconsider since they spent more than 7 years in US already, and separating them will be hard on the kid. Supreme Court ruled for INS, but assumed the kid is US citizen. In previous court decisions, such as "US vs. Wang Kim Ark", children born in US of LEGAL residents (but not US citizens) are considered US citizens. Otherwise, citizenship is inherited from either one of the parents, sometimes both.

    Taking away birthright citizenship would only affect the illegal immigrants and anchor babies, which is probably why Trump chose to push that issue. Though I seem to recall Chinese "birth centers" in SoCal where pregnant moms flock to so babies can be born in the US that was in the news recently.

  15. Guy said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 10:24 pm

    @K Chang

    In Wong Kim Ark the Supreme Court (correctly) interpreted the text of the 14th Amendment's language "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" as being the same as the traditional notion of "owing allegiance" as described in, for example, Blackstone. It's true they haven't ruled in a case involving the children of illegal immigrants but it's hard to see how a contrary result could be reached on the basis of text, history, precedent, or the widespread general interpretation and practice of all the branches after that decision. I mean, the argument "this isn't squarely foreclosed by Supreme Court precedent" isn't really an argument that your interpretation is correct, you still have to have an actual argument that the 14th Amendment means something different than what everyone understands it to mean. For example, I could truthfully say that the Supreme Court has never specifically held that it would be unconstitutional to make it illegal for left-handed people to drive, but that doesn't mean we should assume it's constitutional by default. It almost certainly isn't given what we know about the Equal Protection a Clause and its interpretation. Focusing solely on Supreme Court precedent is also misleading, most legal questions are settled without Supreme Court involvement because, for example, the courts of appeals never split on the issue. That the Supreme Court has never ruled on this specifically is in part because no court of appeals has ever held to the contrary and because the executive doesn't act in a way that made it a justiciable issue (i.e. the executive doesn't try to treat these people as noncitizens), precisely because no one (or hardly anyone) doubts that it's the law. So in that context it's not surprising that we don't have a square holding.

  16. Aelfric said,

    August 26, 2015 @ 10:40 pm

    @Whosyerlawyer–My tongue was firmly in my cheek with my earlier post, but still state statutes–from constitutions on down–have proven much more malleable than the Federal Constitution.

  17. michael farris said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 3:01 am

    I would assume that the end of birthright citizenship would not any effect on anyone's present citizenship (which would be retroactive legislation) and would only effect hose born in the US to non-citizen parents after a particular date named in legislation.

    Hype is fun, but the idea of examining and possibly modifying existing birthright citizenship laws is ridiculous only if you find the idea of citizenship ridiculous (which many people do).

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 8:38 am

    Guy, what exactly is that CGEL sentence about? In this paper by Haj Ross, the first examples of left and right dislocations are "My horse, he snores." and "He snores, my horse." Both look nominative and grammatical to me.

  19. Guy said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 10:43 am

    @Jerry Friedman

    In those examples, "my horse" is the dislocated element and doesn't inflect for case. "He" is nominative, but "he" is the subject of the clause, it isn't the dislocated element. The examples the CGEL gives are "me, I wouldn't trust him further than I could throw him" and "I don't much care for it, me". It doesn't provide examples of ungrammaticality but we can infer the judgments *"I, I wouldn't trust him further than I could throw him" and *"I don't much care for it, I".

  20. Guy said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 10:46 am

    " "my horse" is the dislocated element and doesn't inflect for case."

    For the sake of maximum correctness, I suppose I should say that it doesn't inflect for a nominative/accusative contrast.

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 4:39 pm

    Thanks, Guy, I understand now.

    There is (earworm warning) "But I, I love to spend my time in singing/ Some joyous song," but that's pretty old.

    Most COCA examples of "But I, I" and "But he, he" (much less common) are stammering. However, I found this:

    "(Me, I am a mess of changes of subject, but he, he had a lot of real experiences.)"

    Harold Brodkey, /The Runaway Soul/. "Changes of subject" is practically a grammar pun.

    (There's another relevant "But he, he", but it's a translation.)

    More COCA results:

    . [noun] and I, we: 1
    . [noun] and me, we: 9
    . me and [noun], we: 2

    There aren't any hits on ", [noun] and I." or ", [article] [noun] and I." Is Yum-Yum forgotten?

  22. Guy said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 5:51 pm

    @Jerry Friedman

    It's interesting that that data could be read to support the conclusion that nominative is possible when a single personal pronoun is dislocated, but only if it immediately follows a conjunction.

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 27, 2015 @ 11:24 pm

    Guy: That's what my intuition says. In fact, I suspect it has to be "we" and "[something] and I".

    What I should have searched COCA for was "and I, we". That gets 244 hits, and all the ones I looked at were relevant. "And me, we" gets 142, not all relevant.

    Of course, another place where nominative pronouns are possible only with conjunctions is after prepositions—"for she and I" and all that. I have the feeling "You and I, we" is higher in register, though.

    A catchphrase in college was (slightly "foreign" pronunciation) "So, we meet again, Mr. [Lastname], you and I." I had the feeling the original last name was "Bond", but Google doesn't think so.

    No hits at COCA for ", [personal pronoun] and I." but there are two at COHA, one from a historical play (with "thou"s) written in 1900, and one from a novel in 1931.

    "Your father gave you into my keeping. We shall be prisoners of love , you and I… for ever… since he who was here has gone."

    Despite that rarity, I didn't notice anything unusual about MYL's title.

  24. jtgw said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 12:59 pm

    I wondered what this post had to do with language. Good job spotting the funny right dislocation in the title, guys!

    As to the political content of the post, it's worth remembering that automatic birthright citizenship is the exception, rather than the rule, among developed nations. Indeed, it seems to be a Western hemisphere thing: Canada, Mexico and many other Latin American nations have similar laws, but Europeans, Australians and New Zealanders do not on the whole. NZ in fact revoked birthright citizenship quite recently.

    One could certainly argue that the precedent of decades confirms the usual interpretation of the 14th amendment to cover children of illegal immigrants born in the US, but that doesn't address the question of what would happen if Congress defined "jurisdiction" more narrowly by passing a statute specifically excluding the children of those in this country illegally or on temporary visas. Moreover, Congress has done so before, I believe, by specifically barring the children of foreign diplomats or invading soldiers born on US soil from citizenship. I don't see why it could not do so again in this case.

    I'm sure once such a law is passed, it will be challenged and the courts will have to rule finally on whether children of illegal immigrants are entitled to citizenship as per the 14th amendment, but until then it's an open question, not a settled matter.

    And aside from the specifically constitutional issues surrounding birthright citizenship, I think the moral case for limiting citizenship rights to those whose parents are in the country on a permanent, legal basis is a strong one. Just as you wouldn't treat just anybody born in your house as a member of your family, I see no reason why we are obliged to treat just anybody born within our borders as part of our nation.

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 1:16 pm

    Perhaps not as reflective of modern actual usage as either movie dialogue or the Onion, but it just struck me that there's a famous opening-line-of-poem with approximately this construction, and it doesn't read "Let us go then, you and me" – even though you might have thought that the prior "us" would set up a "me" better than a "we" would.

  26. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 1:25 pm

    Eliot's famous line is echoed with change of plural-pronoun case but not singular-pronoun case by a slightly less ancient writer (lyrics of song first recorded 1968): "Shall we go, you and I while we can / Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?" But again perhaps a self-consciously "poetical" register, and thus not direct evidence that a contemporaneous unintoxicated resident of Haight-Ashbury would have made the same selection of pronoun case in spontaneous discourse.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 3:56 pm

    J. W. Brewer: Are you criticizing Eliot's grammar? Let's you and him fight!

    I'd never noticed that anomaly. COCA again:

    Let's you and I: 12
    Let's you and me: 17


    Let's you and I: 40
    Let's you and me: 42

    (There's little or nothing for "Let's/Let us [verb], you and I/me.)

  28. Guy said,

    August 28, 2015 @ 7:31 pm


    Congress can't redefine words in the Constitution for the purpose of deciding what is constitutional, though in general they may be able to alter the "legal facts" on which a Constitutional determination is based. For example, if Congress passed a law saying the children of illegal immigrants aren't required to follow our laws and are immune to being sued in our courts, like diplomats, then that would presumably mean they aren't subject to our jurisdiction, if a court credits this rule as not being a pretense.

    I'm not too interested in debating the policy issue, but I will note that it seems more consistent with democratic principles (specifically that the authority to govern comes from the consent of the governed) that the test for citizenship should be keyed off of jurisdiction and not blood. I don't see any reason why a child born in another country to citizen parents should be a citizen except as a convenience to their citizen parents. I certainly don't think citizenship should be inheritable as a policy matter in the case where neither citizen parent has ever lived in the United States. On the other hand, it seems apparent to me that an adult that has spent their entire life in the United States – the usual case for children of illegal immigrants – has more business being here than in whatever country their parents happened to have come from.

  29. jtgw said,

    August 29, 2015 @ 12:21 am

    @Guy: I take your point about Congress' limited ability to define "jurisdiction". The only Supreme Court precent, US vs Wong Kim Ark, dealt with the child of legal residents, and apparently illegal residents wasn't even a concern when the 14th amendment was passed for reasons unclear to me (laxer immigration rules perhaps). Basically, this is a new(ish) problem, and the 14th amendment only provides old answers. We need the government to finally act on this and resolve the question once and for all.

    As regards democratic principles, obviously "consent of the governed" hangs on who counts as "governed". You almost seem to suggest that we should grant immediate citizenship to anyone who comes to the US and requests it, since once they enter they will be subject to our laws and therefore have a supposed democratic right to deliberate on those laws; the corollary would be to revoke citizenship just as quickly from any citizen who chooses to leave the country. I'm sure even you recognize how ridiculous such a policy would be.

    In our days of cheap long-distance travel, which makes birth tourism so easy in a way that couldn't be imagined in 1866, I think granting citizenship to anyone born on US soil, regardless of the legal status of the parents, is just terrible policy from the point of the view of the long-term social health of the nation, regardless of the finer jurisprudential issues. Either a law must be passed that can effectively discourage birth tourism (and revoking citizenship rights for the children of illegal residents and tourists would go a long way towards that), or maybe we need a new constitutional amendment.

  30. Guy said,

    August 29, 2015 @ 2:46 am

    Of course the citizenship is attached to the person for a large number of reasons, and the rule can't be just whether the person is subject to U.S. jurisdiction at any given moment. It might also be sensible, from a policy perspective, to limit the rule to births where the family is domiciled in the United States (which I believe is the typical case in the majority of situations where this is an issue), as opposed to just passing through, although that wouldn't be consistent with the 14th Amendment rule. I'm skeptical that that's really a serious issue, though, tourist visas can be denied to the pregnant, if we're really concerned that it would create some kind of social problem (though I doubt it would). A rule aimed at people that have moved to the the United States illegally doesn't address the tourist issue anyway, though. That's really a separate matter. If the real concern is that citizenship for the children helps people to get around deportation, one easy fix that wouldn't require an amendment would be to end the practice of prosecutorial discretion in those cases and deport the parents anyway, which I understand is legal.

    Having a rule that's based solely on blood descent would make the test untethered to any rational purpose, though. Why should a person who is a member of a family that has been in India for three generations be a US citizen but not a child to a family that has been in the United States for three generations? Does that make any sense? I would argue that the jus sanguinis rules are the more outdated. Such rules are only workable in the long term in the absense of significant immigration/emigration and in a context where membership in a nation is equated with membership in a race or ethnicity.

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