It wasn’t surprising when Donald Trump — who had already branded Mexican immigrants as rapists — released an immigration plan that attacked the longstanding principle that anyone born in this country is automatically a U.S. citizen. Unfortunately, Trump isn’t alone in the 2016 Republican presidential field in proposing a rollback of so-called birthright citizenship.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina long has supported a constitutional amendment to abolish birthright citizenship. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky at various times has supported both a constitutional amendment and a statute to accomplish that objective. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania recently suggested that Congress could end birthright citizenship through a simple statute.
To their credit, some Republican candidates have refused to board this shameful bandwagon. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who once supported ending birthright citizenship, has had second thoughts. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush affirms that birthright citizenship is a “constitutionally protected right” that he wouldn’t revoke.
That opposition to birthright citizenship has become a mainstream position in the Republican presidential race is doubly depressing.
First, it challenges a practice that serves as an important emblem of equality and inclusion — and is firmly rooted in the Constitution. The 14th Amendment states: “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.” In 1898, the Supreme Court construed that provision broadly when it affirmed the citizenship of a man born in San Francisco to Chinese parents. Many other countries confer citizenship on the basis of bloodlines, which makes sense when nationality is viewed in terms of ancestry or race or ethnicity. But in America, a nation of immigrants, citizenship is defined differently.
Second, the opposition is based on the canard that birthright citizenship is (in Trump’s words) “the biggest magnet for illegal immigration.” It’s true that citizens may sponsor their parents’ admission to the U.S., but only when the citizen is over 21. An undocumented parent may also be eligible for some benefits for her child and may be less likely to be deported. But these inducements are much less significant factors in illegal immigration than the desire for work and a better life.
A charitable reading of the opposition to birthright citizenship is that it’s a reaction to widespread frustration over the influx of undocumented immigrants. But the best response to that concern remains comprehensive immigration reform that would both secure the borders and provide a path to citizenship for millions of otherwise law-abiding immigrants.
It’s probably too much to expect Trump to embrace that alternative, but surely it deserves the support of Republican candidates who don’t want to be perceived as cranks and xenophobes.