“He Is Already An American”

Note: I posted this on my blog more than five years ago, in August of 2010, when immigration was in the news every day. It seems appropriate to repeat it now.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who, from all I can tell, is generally not a wacko, has joined forces, or actually taken leadership of, a group of wackos who want to repeal parts of the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution, specifically Section 1, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone born in the United States. Specifically, that section says, simply, “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.”

Graham is apparently trying to regain some conservative credibility after getting too cozy with Senator Byron Dorgan and other moderate Democrats, but he’s in bad company on this one, with the likes of Senator John Kyl, former Rep. Tom Tancredo, Rep. John Boehner, and Senate candidate Rand Paul.

This is a mean-spirited effort to gain political points in an election year by highlighting the illegal immigration issue once again. Repeal of the 14th amendment would deny citizenship to children born of illegal immigrants. And also those children born of legal immigrants. It’s been in the news lately and you’re going to hear more about it. This is the amendment given to us by President Abraham Lincoln and a Republican Congress to guarantee everyone equal protection under the law. This was one of the reconstruction amendments which abolished slavery and then prevented states from passing their own laws regarding slavery and equal protection. These people, Republicans all, do not deserve to be part of the Party of Lincoln.

I wish these people had known my mother. And two friends of hers, Adolf Schmidt and his wife Leni.

Adolf and Leni (pronounced Laney) emigrated from Germany to Hettinger, North Dakota, in the years after World War II. Adolf had a cousin who ran a café in Hettinger, and they came here, with their pre-school age daughter, Elke, to work in that café. Adolf was a trained chef, and he cooked while Leni waited on tables. Through hard work and good fortune, they were able to buy that restaurant from Adolf’s cousin. They worked 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, and in their little spare time they learned English and studied for their U.S. citizenship test.

After a few years, Leni became pregnant. She worked right up until it was time to have her baby, and then was whisked off to the brand new Hettinger Community Memorial Hospital, the finest medical facility she had ever seen. She gave birth to a son, which she and Adolf had agreed to name Kent. Adolf stayed behind at the café that day, and at closing time, he trotted up the hill to that hospital as fast as his short, fat little German legs would take him.

He found Leni propped up in her hospital bed. She looked up at him and said, in her still-broken English “Adolf, we have a son. His name is Kent.” And then, her face beaming in joy and wonderment, she said “And guess what? He is already an American.”

My mother was the o.b. nurse on duty at the hospital that night, and she was standing at Leni’s bedside when Adolf came in. She loved to tell that story. She called it “the miracle of America.” She said that, as important as that son was to Leni and Adolf, equally important was the fact that their son was a United States citizen. By birth. Adolf and Leni could imagine nothing more wonderful, more important, than being a United States citizen. And they could only marvel that despite the fact they were not yet United States citizens, because of that wonderful document called the United States Constitution, their son was. Their son was an American.

My mother had many fond memories of her 40-plus years in nursing, but none more wonderful than that one.

Adolf and Leni and Elke eventually became naturalized citizens. Adolf and Leni ran the café until they sold it and retired. Kent was a citizen from the moment he took his first breath. He moved away when he grew up. I hope he lives in a state whose Senators and Congressman will oppose this effort. If not, I hope he calls them and tells them his story.

“He is already an American.” Surely some of the best words ever spoken in North Dakota.

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