Essential: adj. 1: of, relating to or constituting an essence <voting is an ~right of citizenship> <~ oils> 2: of an utmost importance: INDISPENSABLE…Synonyms IMPERATIVE, NECESSARY, NECESSITOUS—essentially adv.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Eleventh Edition
My mother is now retired, and I am glad and thankful, but today were she not she would be an “essential worker.” Before she retired, she worked for years as a healthcare provider, tending to people with crippling illnesses, people who had been disabled, who needed day to day care, who needed to be moved, massaged, fed, listened to, talked to, and simply touched. For my mother, her work as a healthcare provider was not a job, but a vocation. She had to retire, despite her intense wish to continue, because she could no longer trust herself to drive to her patients. Her eyesight had deteriorated to the point that she could no longer see the road signs. I remember these painful discussions with her.
Like millions of mothers in the U.S., my mother is an immigrant, and like millions of mothers today, she also earned her citizenship after a decade of legal struggles. For that decade, she lived in dread, anxiety, fear, and terror of La Migra. Today we call ICE, what my mom called La Migra, namely the officers of the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency who hunt, round up, imprison and deport so-called illegal aliens, as well legal citizens, back to “where they came from.” My mom has been a citizen of the U.S.for most of her life. When she tells me the story of how she became a citizen, tears well up in her eyes because of the intense memories, but above all because of her deep gratitude. She was terrified of La Migra. I can’t imagine how she would feel if she had to deal with ICE, as I am sure many mothers today have to fear with the most paralyzing of fears.
My mother lived in a form of oppression and exploitation that has haunted our country since its inception, namely the power to either refuse and withdraw or grant and respect citizenship. Citizenship, as philosopher Michael Walzer notes, is one of the most important “goods” that a community can distribute to its members. Citizenship is the very means through which a community distributes its benefits and wealth, just as it shares burdens and liabilities. Citizenship is the fundamental institution for the distribution of justice. The branches of government are blind and deaf to the faces and voices of those who are not (deemed) citizens. But, citizens are the eyes, voice, bodies, and limbs of the government. There is no government without its citizens, for the government is there only for its citizens. Justice may be blind, but it is guided by the conscience and chants of its citizens.
The citizen is the living cell that makes a republic, without which there is no rule of the people, by the people, and for the people. But like cells, citizens are part of a web of interdependencies, what some call the body politic. The citizen is the living unit of citizenship, but a republic can only survive and flourish if citizens are empowered to transform and regenerate it, by making it embody the ideals and aspirations of its members, whether citizens or not. Citizenship is the institution of institution for it determines who is a citizen, when they can become a citizen, who may or may not become a citizen, who and under what conditions a citizen’s citizenship can be revoked, and lamentably in our Republic, when they can be put to death.
Our conception and institution of citizenship, however, is an accomplishment, and most would say, still an incomplete project. When our country was founded with its Declaration of Independence, and the drafting of its Constitution, citizenship was not spelled out. It was delegated to the States. This silence about who was a member of the polity meant that the privileges of citizenship de jure and de facto belonged only to property- owning, literate, white males, who could own other human beings and treat their wives as property. Our Supreme Court ruled that Blacks, whether slave or not, could not be citizens. It took the Civil War and the subsequent amendments to our Constitution to emancipate citizenship from its racial, religious, sexist, tyrannical grip.
Birthright citizenship, which is what the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution established and made the law of this Republic, is one of the most noble and historically significant achievements of our Republic. The now constitutionally spelled-out institution of citizenship made law in 1868 remade our republic, founding it for a second time, to use historian Eric Foner’s term. The promise and ideal of this new conception of citizenship is the abolition of all racial, gender, religious, sexual preference, and cultural background, privileges, exceptions, or exclusions as qualifiers for citizenship. Who is a citizen is not determined by one’s descent, one’s blood, the color of one’s skin, one’s religion, one’s language, one’s country of origin, and one’s former status as a slave. Citizenship was no longer property and privilege, but a set of rights, duties, responsibilities, liabilities and exceptions.
The first sentence of the Fourteenth Amendment is absolutely clear: “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.” Note the language: born and naturalized. It does not require much imagination to recognize why after the Civil War these words were absolutely necessary for disavowing our antebellum Republic as a polity of racial privilege. These words re-baptized our republic as one of both unfathomable and unfinished equality. After the civil war, now that Blacks were no longer slaves, the question was: would they be citizens? The Civil War Amendments to the Constitutions were the emphatic and unambiguous answer.
My mom is not of Mexican origin, but like millions of “Hispanics,” “Latinos,” “Chicanos,” “Puerto Ricans,” “Central Americans,” and “South Americans,” we are relentlessly, viciously, degradingly, and dehumanizingly oppressed by what philosopher Amy Reed-Sandoval calls “undocumented social identity.” Many of us have been citizens of this republic for generations. We have also labored for decades, and generations, to become citizens. But because of the way we look, talk, pray, we are always deemed “non-citizens.” Yet, we are the hands that pick the fruits and vegetables in California, Florida, Virginia, and wherever there are harvests to be gathered. We are the hands that cut and pack the meat at the slaughterhouses throughout the Midwest. We are the nurses in hospitals. We are the teachers that teach all American children. We are the bodies that die in our endless wars. We are the cooks that cook your favorite meals. We are the bodies that marched with Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and Black Lives Matters.
We are essential, but we are also all too easily disposable. We have contributed to “achieving our country,” to use James Baldwin’s beautiful phrase, as long, if not longer than many others who never fear whether they will be deported, or that ICE will raid their homes and workplaces. We are so absolutely disposable that our citizenship is in question, revocable, suspect, always suspended, and always elusive and receding. We are forced to work, as we are also forced to be the ones to be the most exposed and vulnerable. Yet, as soon as our essential work has been done, we will be rounded up and deported. So long as we are the caste that is perpetually “socially undocumented,” the letter and spirit of the Fourteenth Amendment remains betrayed and unfilled. And our country is unachieved and unachievable.
Eduardo Mendieta is the son of a naturalized citizen, who emigrated to the US back in the seventies. He is also a teacher and writer.