Taking the 14th

Reckless drive to repeal birthright citizenship offers short-term gain, long-term danger for Republicans

August 15, 2010

The movement to revise the 14th Amendment has seemingly blown up out of nowhere, like the sudden storm that rolled across our area the other morning. The renewed interest in repealing birthright citizenship won't disappear nearly so quickly, though its staying power beyond the November election is open to serious question.

"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." Those words, ratified soon after the Civil War, were mainly designed to turn former slaves into citizens. At the time, there was also full realization that America would be granting citizenship to children of Chinese workers and other unpopular foreigners. Finally realizing the founders' dream of equality for all, regardless of one's station in life, was more important to the (Republican) advocates of the 14th Amendment than the small-minded thinking of its opponents.

Now, prominent modern-day Republicans are helping legitimize a growing effort to roll back the guarantee of citizenship to all children born on U.S. soil, regardless of their parents' immigrant status. In the same way that excess moisture in the atmosphere feeds a violent downpour, anxieties produced by bad economic times have fueled a dark surge of anti-immigrant sentiment. Demands for a new crackdown on illegal immigration are being heard from Arizona to Maryland's Eastern Shore as the campaign season heats up, with conservative Republicans leading the charge.

Critics of birthright citizenship claim illegal immigrants are now coming to America in droves for the express purpose of delivering "anchor babies," newborns whose automatic citizenship not only confers a host of benefits on the children but could make it easier for their relatives to become U.S. citizens when these babies turn 21. No one knows how many women come illegally simply to deliver a child, though indications are the numbers are very low. Research indicates that the overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants who give birth here have been in the U.S. for at least a year.

Still, it's hard to argue with another statistic that seems to bolster the case for repeal: About one of every 12 children born in the U.S. in 2009 was the offspring of illegal immigrants, a sharp increase from six years earlier, according to a recent Pew Hispanic Center report. Those figures reflect the fact that illegal residents tend to be younger, on average, and thus more likely to be of child-bearing age, according to demographers.

Opinion surveys show that Americans are evenly divided over whether to end birthright citizenship. But a two-to-one majority of conservative Republicans favors a ban.

Little surprise, then, that Republican politicians in growing numbers are lending aid and comfort to birthright critics. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was one of the first to call for changing the 14th Amendment. Even Sen. John McCain, once a leader on immigration reform but facing a conservative challenge in next week's Arizona GOP primary, favors congressional hearings on the proposal.

The issue has the potential to energize Republican voters right through the fall and might win over independent voters, too, improving Republican chances of taking back control of Congress. Whether the short-term gain is worth the likely long-term cost is another matter.

Some Republicans are warning that pushing for repeal poses an existential threat to the party. Conservative commentator Linda Chavez, a former Reagan White House aide and U.S. Senate candidate in Maryland, has called it "a terrible idea." Pushing for repeal, as Ms. Chavez and others point out, not only betrays a bedrock American value — the ever-expanding view of what it means to be an American — but is profoundly stupid in practical terms. "It will unquestionably jeopardize the electoral future of the GOP by alienating Hispanics, the largest and fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population," Ms. Chavez recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

Cynical Republicans, including Ohio Rep. John Boehner, the minority leader who would replace Nancy Pelosi as speaker if his party takes back the House, are willing to encourage critics of birthright citizenship for a simple reason: They know the 14th Amendment won't be modified.

Repealing the birthright provision would require a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. That's a virtual impossibility, given the public split on the matter. When the election is over and passions fade, the issue will recede into the background, as it has repeatedly since the 1800s. If Congress really wanted to limit the number of children born to illegal immigrants, the way to do that would be to finally reduce the number of illegal immigrants, not rewrite the Constitution.

By lending support to those who would turn back the citizenship clock to the days of slavery, Republicans may well be dealing themselves a severe blow. A large and growing segment of the American population is unlikely to forget that one of the two major parties again showed extreme hostility to minorities, whose pivotal role in the 2008 presidential election signaled the dawn of a new era in U.S. politics. Republican willingness to encourage the birthright-repeal movement, with its borderline racism (75 percent of illegal immigrants are Latinos), will stamp them once more as America's white party, a doomed distinction in a land whose increasing racial and ethnic diversity is an irreversible fact of life.

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