IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

GOP candidates rethinking Constitution to end birthright citizenship

A growing chorus of Republican presidential contenders want to rethink the way we interpret the Constitution.

Donald Trump is sending the immigration debate reeling to the right -- and taking the crowded GOP presidential pack along with him -- by essentially calling to change the U.S. Constitution in order to combat illegal immigration, a policy prescription previously championed only by the most anti-immigrant firebrands in the Republican Party.

Now the idea is going mainstream.

Calls to end so-called "birthright citizenship" blew up within hours after Trump released his first detailed policy proposal since spouting blanket accusations about drug dealers and rapists coming to the U.S. from Mexico. 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.

Related: Trump's GOP backing just keeps growing

Since the end of the Civil War, anyone born on U.S. soil has been granted full rights and formal recognition as American citizens. It has been a constitutional right for generations, reinforcing our nation's legacy as one founded by immigrants and solidifying immigration as a key component of the American Dream.

What Trump is proposing is somewhat remarkable. Experts widely believe that eliminating birthright citizenship would require, at least to some degree, changing the Constitution. Two-thirds of both houses of Congress would need to sign onto the plan. Then three-fourths of state legislatures would need to ratify changes to the 14th Amendment. It’s a lengthy process with countless hurdles along the way, not to mention one carrying profound implications in changing an amendment that granted the first steps toward equal rights and dignity for freed slaves.

“A constitutional amendment is an extraordinary political act to pull off -- even for Donald Trump,” said Michael Fix, president of the Migration Policy Institute.

Trump's position hardly makes him an outlier. The GOP presidential field had already begun taking an aggressive lurch to the right on legal immigration before the celebrity real estate mogul even entered the race. While politicians have largely abandoned using the pejorative term "anchor babies" to describe immigrants who plant firm roots in the U.S. by having children born as American citizens, the topic comes up frequently in conservative circles. Others warn of “tourism babies,” decrying pregnant women who give birth during their vacations to the U.S.

"We need to end birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants," Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal tweeted Monday.

“I am not a big fan of the idea that you come and have a child, you are automatically a citizen,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told NBC News’ Kelly O’Donnell on Monday.

Gov. Scott Walker, who used to be relatively moderate on the issue but has since tacked far to the right on legal immigration, told msnbc’s Kasie Hunt on Monday that he too would consider banning birthright citizenship. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum wrote in an op-ed in May that he considers birthright citizenship to be an unnecessary "enticement" for illegal immigration. "Only children born on American soil where at least one parent is a citizen or resident aliens is automatically a U.S. citizen," he wrote. 

Related: GOP responds to Trump's immigration policy

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul even introduced a resolution in 2011 to amend the Constitution, requiring that citizenship be limited to those with at least one parent who is either a legal citizen, a legal immigrant or member of the armed services. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie too has said in recent months that he thinks the policy might need to be “re-examined.”

The U.S. Supreme Court on multiple occasions has upheld that American citizenship is afforded to “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."

Conservatives have argued that the language is outdated and was not intended to include the children of undocumented immigrants. Members of Congress have tried on occasion to circumvent a full constitutional amendment by introducing legislation to leave out any ambiguity. Anti-immigrant firebrand Iowa Rep. Steve King, who previously led the charge to end automatic citizenship through a measure to re-interpret the 14th Amendment, has brought numerous such measures before Congress, the latest introduced last spring.

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2011, when calls to end birthright citizenship were previously in vogue, a majority of the public (57%) said they preferred to keep things as they were. Another 39% said they would support changing the Constitution. The scales were almost perfectly flipped among self-identified tea party supporters, 57% of whom favored eliminating birthright citizenship by altering the Constitution.

Bob Dane, communications director for the conservative group Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the conservative base favors reducing the undocumented population in the U.S. “It’s a holdover from another era -- it’s now manipulated and abused by illegal aliens to gain unfair citizenship for their children,” he said.

Researchers say it would do just the opposite. The Migration Policy Institute estimated that legislation to eliminate birthright citizenship would cause the undocumented population to explode, rising from an estimated 11 million people in 2010 to 16 million by 2050.

“The likelihood that it will achieve the effects its proponents say it will achieve is slim,” Fix said.

The latest emphasis on curbing legal immigration is not without its ironies. President Obama’s most vocal critics often say his executive actions on immigration -- allowing as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants to remain temporarily in the U.S. -- amount to executive overreach.

Nearly all GOP presidential candidates have vowed to end those executive actions to varying degrees, calling the measures an assault on U.S. liberties and patently unconstitutional. But the idea that many GOP candidates are now offering up? Re-write the Constitution.