During another time of intense concern over immigration (when has the United States not had such a time?) senators openly discussed the proposed 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which was going to establish that anyone born on U.S. soil automatically would be considered a citizen.
Edgar Cowan of Pennsylvania wasn't so concerned about the newly freed slaves, who seemed to be the main target of the amendment. His thoughts were on the Chinese, the race many people worried was going to overrun California.
"I am really desirous to have a legal definition of 'citizenship of the United States,' " he said. "Is the child of the Chinese immigrant in California a citizen? Is the child of a Gypsy born in Pennsylvania a citizen?"
Sen. John Conness of California answered that the amendment would indeed relate "to the children begotten of Chinese parents in California, and it is proposed to declare that they shall be citizens."
Just how powerful of a statement was that? Well, just to show that politics really hasn't changed much, Conness later lost his re-election bid, partly because of his support for Chinese immigrants.
This exchange took place on May 30, 1866. It's all there in The Congressional Globe, which provides a blow-by-blow record of everything done in Congress back then.
Welcome back to the future. Or perhaps American politics shouldn't be measured by linear time, but in circles. Last week, a few Republicans, including former presidential candidate John McCain, were talking about holding hearings on changing the 14th Amendment. Unlike in 1866, no one seems worried about the Chinese. This time it's the children born to Hispanics who cross the border illegally. Some people worry these so-called "anchor babies" are begotten on purpose as a way to tie parents to an American citizen.
Today there are few statesmen like Conness to be found. Instead, we have senators who boldly declare their ignorance. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama told The Associated Press, "I'm not sure exactly what the drafters of the 14th Amendment had in mind, but I doubt it was that somebody could fly in from Brazil and have a child and fly back home with that child, and that child is forever an American citizen."
No, they weren't dreaming of Boeing 747s, but if Sessions really wanted to know what the drafters had in mind, he could find it. For the record, back again on May 30, 1866, the guy who drafted the citizenship part of the amendment, Sen. Jacob Merritt Howard of Michigan, said:
"This amendment which I have offered is simply declaratory of what I regard as the law of the land already, that every person born within the limits of the United States, and subject to their jurisdiction, is by virtue of natural law and national law a citizen of the United States."
British common law defined every child born within the nation's borders of alien parents as a natural-born citizen. The only exceptions would be children born to foreign diplomats and children born of alien enemies who are being detained or imprisoned.
Anyone who studies the history of immigration in the United States can find plenty of echoes for the rhetoric heard today. A little more than a century ago, no one was complaining about "illegals." That's because there were no laws restricting immigration. But fears about "public morality" being threatened by people "unfit for the responsibilities of American citizenship," to quote the Immigration Restriction League of the day, led to such laws. Those undesirables were people many of us now call great-great-grandparents.
Illegal immigration does indeed pose a host of legitimate problems. Borders should be sealed against criminals and terrorists.
But you can't tamper with the 14th Amendment without changing something fundamental about who we are as a nation.