As the presidential primary debate turns to birthright citizenship, it's no longer just undocumented immigrants who are being targeted by incendiary Republican rhetoric -- increasingly, it's registered voters, too.
Millions of U.S. citizens have parents who are undocumented immigrants. Now, with the legitimacy of their citizenship under fire from several Republican presidential candidates, the GOP once again risks alienating a major voting bloc that could be key to retaking the White House.
It is precisely the situation that elements of the party elite were hoping to avoid after Mitt Romney's disastrous showing in 2012 with Latino voters, who turned out in record numbers that year to hand President Obama victory with more than 73% of their vote.
Immigration activists say that if that scenario repeats itself in 2016, the GOP will have Donald Trump to blame.
“He is attacking U.S. citizens. That’s obviously not the way that you run a campaign and that’s obviously not the way you will win the Latino vote,” said Girsea Martinez, a pro-immigrant rights activist who is a U.S. citizen with undocumented parents. “People like me who have close ties to the immigrant community will not be voting for a Republican candidate that backs what Trump has said.”
Trump, who has made extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, has said in recent days that the U.S. should eliminate birthright citizenship and deport all 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegaly. Several other Republican candidates have since taken up the billionaire businessman's rhetoric, with many appearing to endorse his position.
An estimated 4.5 million people under the age of 18 have benefited from birthright citizenship as of 2010, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan think tank considered to be the gold standard in assessing the undocumented population in the U.S. It’s estimated that number will increase by 300,000 births each year, accounting for 7.5% of all babies born in the U.S.
Pro-immigrant rights advocates say immigrant communities will likely treat Trump’s plan with more outrage and ridicule than fear: Eliminating birthright citizenship would require changing the 14th Amendment, a political undertaking that would be nearly impossible. But even an empty threat could backfire for Republican candidates pushing the issue, leaving the party exposed during the 2016 general election match-up.
“Even though people are smart enough to know this is not going to pass as a constitutional amendment, it’s not actually going anywhere policy-wise, but the attempts to get there, the vitriol and the language that they’re using … that is having an impact on voters and they will remember it,” said Lynn Tramone, deputy director for the pro-reform advocacy group America’s Voice.
The unyielding position many Republicans have taken on immigration is not without reason -- the last time the public was polled on birthright citizenship in 2011, more than 57% of self-identified tea partiers favored a constitutional amendment to eliminate the citizenship right. It has remained a perennial issue within the halls of Congress for years, kept alive by a small number of GOP hardliners.
“It has been an extremist position for years,” said David Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Trump’s own position has gone beyond the most extreme positions that we’ve seen. It just goes to show what this man will do to garner votes.”