Citizen with an asterisk 

Citizen with an asterisk 
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Since President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE pledged to end birthright citizenship with an executive order, I have been thinking a lot about the status of recently naturalized citizens like myself. If constitutional protections may no longer be a guarantee of citizenship, it seems only a matter of time before the rights of naturalized citizens are up for grabs as well.

I became a United States citizen in a courthouse in Concord, New Hampshire, on November 17, 2017. It was a sober and moving ceremony — surprisingly diverse by New Hampshire standards. The presiding judge welcomed us with a reminder about the meaning of citizenship and the rights and obligations that come with it. What stuck with me in his speech was the reassurance that we all deserved to be there. That as of that morning, except for the presidency, we had the exact same rights as any other citizen.

As a Hispanic first-generation immigrant, it emphatically does not feel that way now, if it ever did. Here is why. Trump came to power on an anti-immigrant platform that played race resentment and economic anxieties off each other. From calling Mexicans rapists at the start of his campaign to promising to build a wall in the 2016 elections, to talking about voiding birthright citizenship – enshrined in the 14th Amendment – in advance of the 2018 midterm elections, he has been nothing but straightforward in his contempt for minorities and his disregard for legality. 


His actions as president have kept on par with his inflammatory rhetoric, dispelling the notion that we should not take his campaign promises at face value. Tent citiesfear mongering ads, deploying troops at the bordercriminalizing asylum seekers to stoke xenophobic sentiment in order to mobilize voters and maintain control of the legislative branch of government — these are actions from just the last few weeks.

Earlier this year, Homeland Security instituted a policy mandating family separation at the border and the internment of children, including asylum seekers, in prison-like warehouses; the Temporary Protected Status that has allowed people from Honduras, Salvador, Nicaragua and Haiti to stay in the United States is being suspended; USCIS assembled a legal team to go over citizenship applications and denaturalize people who lied on their application.

I am hardly alone in feeling that an asterisk has been added to my citizenship status.

Since the inauguration, the number of Latinos who are concerned about their place in the United States has grown from 41 percent to 49 percent and now outnumbers the percentage of Latinos who feel confident about their place in Trump’s America. Four out of ten Hispanics have experienced harassment of some kind, be it outright discrimination and unfair treatment, being called out for speaking Spanish, being told to go back to their country, or being called offensive names.

I do not take my citizenship status for granted. Those who have lived in, reported on, studied, or taught about authoritarian regimes know that even the most solid looking political system can easily crumble under the right circumstances.

I was born in the transitional period between the end of a military dictatorship and an imperfect, but relatively stable democracy in Spain. Only a few weeks ago my students were reading about the controversy over Franco’s remains and expressed dismay at how expressing public support for the dictator had become normalized so quickly. Yes, Spain’s democratic tradition is much shorter than the United States. The point is: even stable democratic systems can succumb to the temptations of authoritarianism.

For all we know, talk of ending birthright citizenship may be just electoral newsbait, an item at the top of Trump’s wishlist rather than a policy plan. That in itself should be worrying enough. If it is more than posturing, it will represent another step towards authoritarianism, perhaps the most significant yet, but certainly not the last.

Trump’s authoritarian tendencies may or may not end in an executive order voiding the 14th Amendment; the federal courts he has so diligently filled may or may not uphold such an order; the Supreme Court may or may not eventually overturn it.

For my part, I did not lie in my citizenship application — I had, in fact, the easiest time with my application of anyone I know. I am not a second-generation immigrant born to foreign parents. I am not a Central American asylum seeker. But it does not matter. The seed has been planted.

If you are a person of color, if you are Latino, if you are Asian-American, if you are Muslim, if you are Jewish, if you are LGTBQ: an asterisk has been added to my rights as a citizen, and to yours too.

I wonder what the newly-minted citizens will be hearing in that Concord courthouse now. Probably a similar message, made all the more urgent by the attacks on citizenship. Here is to hoping the judge’s words hold true.

Roberto Rey Agudo is Language Program Director in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Dartmouth College and a Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project.