Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Constitutional Apartheid
America's New Political Underclass

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, DC, March 9, 1999 --  

When the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott Decision in 1857, it was big news. The importance of the decision was easy to understand; the court had struck down the Missouri Compromise, and denied citizenship rights to the four million black slaves living in the country.1 The decision threw the fragile political order off balance and hastened the slide toward Civil War.

If you think we've come a long way since then, think again. Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court stripped the constitutional rights from over 16 million people living in the United States.2 As a result of Reno v. American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee decision, the U.S. government may take the political views of immigrants into consideration when deciding whether to deport them.3 Whoops! There goes the First Amendment.

The disturbing lack of public outrage at this decision is likely due to its application only to non-citizens. Politically active Americans are usually concerned with their own rights first, and with the rights of fellow citizens second. Immigrants simply do not fit into their equation -- apparently they don't really belong.

But to dismiss the rights of immigrants is to dismiss a large percentage of the American population. Many people are shocked to learn that there are nearly 17 million non-citizen residents in the United States --  amounting to six percent of the population.4 By contrast, at the time of the Dred Scott Decision, there were only four million blacks in the U.S., which at the time amounted to 14 percent of the population.5 Back then, some Americans found it so important to dismiss their rights that they were willing to fight the Civil War to keep blacks in chains.

Whether you support immigration or not, the fact is that immigration is happening. Each year, over a quarter of a million people come from other countries to live in the United States. The non-citizen population has been increasing for years.

If it is acceptable to deny human rights to the six percent of residents that are non-citizens, then where does it end? What happens when the number of non-citizens grows to 10 percent of the population? How about 30 percent? At some point, government control over citizenship status ceases to be a legitimate state function, and becomes a tool of repression.

Don't think for a second that this can't happen. It already has. Before the fall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa, the white minority used the same kind of constitutional restrictions on non-citizens to repress the black population. The descendents of English and Dutch settlers built the foundations of Apartheid upon the historical absence of black Africans living in the region. As the black population grew through higher birthrates and immigration from neighboring countries, the whites eventually became the minority. Until the demise of the regime in the early 1990s, however, the government continued to pursue a policy of registering blacks as official residents of quasi-independent "Bantustans," effectively making the majority of the population foreigners in their own country.

While current U.S. policy does not approach the evil of the racist Apartheid regime, there are many troublesome similarities. The repressive tactics used along the southern border of the United States to keep out brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking migrants are absolutely shameful. Once across, these illegal aliens live in constant fear of arrest and deportation by armed federal agents. Such violent acts are on the increase --  deportations rose by 50 percent to 150,000 in 1998.6

It is the illegal segment of the immigrant population that gets the least public sympathy. Popular opposition to their presence led voters in California in 1994 to vote for Proposition 187, which denied social services to illegal immigrants. Unlike the Supreme Court's Reno decision, however, Proposition 187 was strongly denounced by pro-immigrant Americans.

This contrast is one of the more disturbing aspects of the Reno decision. When it came down to denying immigrants' social services, Democrats where vocally outraged. But now that the issue is one of the most basic of human rights --  the right of free speech --  the same people are eerily silent.

This is a terrible mistake. It took 11 years, a civil war, and a constitutional amendment to override the Dred Scott Decision. The public apathy surrounding the Reno decision threatens to turn immigrants into America's permanent political underclass.


1. World Almanac and Book of Facts 1998, Population, by Sex, Race, Residence, and Median Age, 1790-1997 (U.S. Bureau of the Census)

2. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Selected Characteristics of the Population by Citizenship: March 1997, April 9, 1998

3. The New York Times, Justices Uphold Selective Deporting of Aliens, February 25, 1999

4. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Ibid.

5. World Almanac and Book of Facts 1998, Ibid.

6. The Economist, Not a Word, March 6, 1999