An exasperating phrase emerged a few years ago in far-right circles that never really went away: “constitutional conservative.” The meaning has always been a little ambiguous, but the basic idea behind the label is that these conservatives stick to constitutional principles more faithfully, and with greater vigor, than everyone else.
With this in mind, I’m eager to hear more from constitutional conservatives about their commitment to the 14th Amendment. Because as MSNBC’s Amanda Sakuma explained this morning, all of a sudden, “birthright citizenship” is the new litmus-test issue in Republican politics, and GOP candidates are going to have to decide whether to follow Donald Trump’s lead.
[T]he idea is going mainstream.Calls to end so-called “birthright citizenship” blew up within hours after Trump released his first detailed policy proposal…. Candidates who had previously supported banning automatic citizenship to any person born in the U.S. clamored to prove they came up with the idea first. Others are now being pressed to publicly address an issue traditionally left in the fringe.
I remember writing about this quite a bit five years ago, when anti-immigration Tea Partiers decided the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” was a problem in need of a solution.
Jamelle Bouie wrote at the time, “It’s genuinely difficult to overstate the radicalism necessary to seek a transformation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was designed to ensure that slavery could never again happen in the United States and is now integral to keeping the United States free of a permanent underclass of immigrant workers. At its core, birthright citizenship gives immigrants a reason to stay and provide lasting contributions to the United States.”
Five years later, it’s become a little too common to find prominent Republican presidential candidates express, at a minimum, open hostility for the constitutional provision.
Some GOP candidates have been more explicit than others. For example, Kasie Hunt asked Scott Walker yesterday, “We should end birthright citizenship? ” The Wisconsin governor replied, “Yeah, to me it’s about enforcing the laws in this country.”
For the far-right governor, it would appear there’s some confusion about whether the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution counts as a “law in this country.” Where are the constitutional conservatives when we need them?
Of course, the list quickly grows from here. In addition to Trump and Walker, Rand Paul opposes birthright citizenship, as do Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum.
There’s a second group of GOP candidates, led by Chris Christie, who say they’re open to changing birthright citizenship, though they’ve haven’t specifically rejected the current policy itself. Carly Fiorina, for example, said yesterday, “[W]e should talk about what it would take to get it changed.”
That would be quite a conversation, indeed. Opponents of birthright citizenship haven’t endorsed a specific action plan, per se, but their choices appear to be limited to (a) amending the Constitution, which would be practically impossible on an issue like this; or (b) passing a law in conflict with the 14th Amendment, and finding far-right judges willing to go along.
The fact that this debate is even happening at all should be depressing for Republican officials. The 14th Amendment has stood as a pillar of American law for nearly 150 years. Repeatedly, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the principle of birthright citizenship – if you’re born in the United States, you’re a citizen of the United States – because the Constitution simply doesn’t leave much in the way of wiggle room.
But as Republican politics has become more radical, opposition to the principle has moved from the fringe to Congress to the presidential campaign trail.
This probably isn’t what the authors of the RNC 2012 autopsy had in mind after Mitt Romney earned 27% of the Latino vote in the last presidential election. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes noted late yesterday, “If you’re the Democrats, it’s hard to imagine a better turn of events than the GOP primary becoming a bidding war over ending birthright citizenship.”