The 14th Amendment to the Constitution doesn't leave much in the way of wiggle room: the rights of American citizenship are given to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States." It's a principle generally known as "birthright citizenship," and after its enactment following the Civil War, the Supreme Court has protected the tenet many times.
But as Republican politics moved sharply to the right, and anti-immigration sentiments within the GOP became more extreme, the party's "constitutional conservatives" decided the principle, championed by Republicans nearly 150 years ago, needs to go. Shortly after the "Tea Party" gains in 2010, ending birthright citizenship was added to the far-right's to-do list
And yesterday, as Dana Milbank explained
, a congressional panel actually considered a plan to scrap the existing constitutional provision.
A House Judiciary subcommittee took up the question Wednesday afternoon, prompted by legislation sponsored by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and 22 other lawmakers that, after nearly 150 years, would end automatic citizenship. The 14th Amendment, King told the panel, "did not contemplate that anyone who would sneak into the United States and have a baby would have automatic citizenship conferred on them." Added King, "I'd suggest it's our job here in this Congress to decide who will be citizens, not someone in a foreign country that can sneak into the United States and have a baby and then go home with the birth certificate." It's no small task to undo a principle, enshrined in the Constitution and upheld by the Supreme Court, that defines the United States as a nation of immigrants. It's particularly audacious that House Republicans would undo a century and a half of precedent without amending the Constitution but merely by passing a law to reinterpret the 14th Amendment's wording in a way that will stop the scourge of "anchor babies" and "birth tourism."
That's no small detail. In the American system of government, if federal lawmakers want to alter constitutional law, they have to actually amend the Constitution. But King and his cohorts have a different idea: they intend to simply pass a regular ol' law voiding the unambiguous language of the 14th Amendment.
Remember, these are the same folks who are convinced President Obama is a radical who ignores constitutional principles he doesn't like.
To bolster his case, House Republicans invited a few "experts" to tell lawmakers why the plan to end birthright citizenship is a great idea -- one of whom has a deeply troubled history
on issues related to race.
But to dismiss the entire debate as a pet project of a clownish congressman would be a mistake. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), for example, is also sponsoring a bill to end birthright citizenship, calling it a constitutional "loophole
" he hopes to fill.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) hasn't signed on to King's bill, but he considers the constitutional principle an open question. "The question of whether our forefathers meant for birthright citizenship in all circumstances to be the law of the land is far from settled," Goodlatte said
at the hearing. "In any event, we must still determine if it is the right policy for America today."
Even at the national level, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a GOP presidential candidate, recently sat down with a right-wing conspiracy-theory website, WorldNetDaily, where he voiced opposition
to birthright citizenship.
WND: Do you still want to end birthright citizenship? PAUL: Yeah, I think if you have a broken system like we have now, you can't let just people -- you know, I've always agreed with Milton Freedman who said you can't have open borders and a welfare state. You can't become a magnet for the world and let everybody come in here, have children, and then they all become citizens. So I still do agree with that.
In 2011, Vitter introduced a measure to undo birthright citizenship, and the proposal picked up four Senate Republican co-sponsors. Rand Paul was one of the four
It's a bad sign when the debate shifts from whether or not to pass comprehensive immigration reform to whether or not Congress wants to nullify part of the 14th Amendment.