GOP's heartless, xenophobic crusade: How the birthright citizenship debate will test the 2016 candidates

Immigration hardliners want to redefine American citizenship, and the GOP's 2016 candidates are keeping quiet

Published April 30, 2015 2:37PM (EDT)

Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush                              (Reuters/AP/Sara Stathas/Kevin Lamarque/Stephan Savoia/David Manning)
Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush (Reuters/AP/Sara Stathas/Kevin Lamarque/Stephan Savoia/David Manning)

The Republican posture on immigration reform follows a predictable rhythm: moderates in the party build up momentum towards enacting reform legislation, and then everything comes crashing back down in a nativist frenzy. It happened in the second half of George W. Bush’s presidency, when reform efforts in the Senate were ultimately derailed by the “enforcement only” posture of talk radio and Tom DeLay. It happened again in 2013, when a bipartisan Senate reform bill was left to rot on the shelf as conservatives in the House rebelled against “amnesty.” With comprehensive reform dead, the party once again shifting right on immigration, and President Obama’s executive actions to rail against, the nativists in the GOP are once again emboldened.

Yesterday afternoon, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security convened to discuss whether or not the U.S. should revoke birthright citizenship. This is a pet cause of Rep. Steve King (R-IA), Congress’ most prominent immigration hardliner, who has introduced legislation in each of the last three sessions of Congress calling for an end to the practice. King’s reason for ending birthright citizenship is, in his words, to derail the “anchor baby agenda,” which assumes that pregnant women are flocking to the U.S. to give birth as a means to obtain citizenship for themselves at a later date. There’s no real evidence that this is happening in any significant fashion, and there’s even research to suggest that birthright citizenship helps immigrant families to integrate into their new countries, but King wants to get rid of it nonetheless.

This is, to put it plainly, a radical proposition. Birthright citizenship has been the law of the land ever since Reconstruction and has been affirmed by the courts over and over. The movement to undo the practice is built on an exotic and tendentious reading of the 14th Amendment and the assumption that the courts have been misinterpreting the Constitution for over a century. And there’s a strong moral case against revoking birthright citizenship. “Children have committed no crime at birth; have violated no law; have not transgressed the implied promise of a visa,” the Immigration Policy Center noted in a 2011 report. “To punish babies, much less to proscribe and entirely outlaw them, because of the perceived sins of their parents is alien to our moral and ethical tradition.”

Nevertheless, it’s a popular idea among conservatives and Republicans. Sen. David Vitter issued a renewed call to end birthright citizenship shortly after the 2014 elections. The Republican leaders of both houses of Congress, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, have said it’s an idea that worth considering. The topic came up at a Republican presidential debate in 2011, and two of the candidates – Tim Pawlenty and Herman Cain – endorsed the revocation of citizenship by birth. And since it’s now coming up again as part of the nativist afterglow of comprehensive immigration reform’s most recent demise, let’s take a look at where the 2016 candidates stand.

First, Rand Paul. Ah, good old Rand Paul: the Republican Party’s immigration weathervane. The man has taken pretty much every position one can take on immigration matters, including an endorsement of ending birthright citizenship. One of the very first things Paul did when he arrived in the Senate was to team up with David Vitter in proposing a constitutional amendment to revoke citizenship by birth and end the “anchor baby” scourge. “Citizenship is a privilege, and only those who respect our immigration laws should be allowed to enjoy its benefits,” he said at the time. But, in typical Rand Paul fashion, he’s just not so sure anymore. When Vitter revived the birthright citizenship issue in the Senate earlier this year, Paul refused to comment on it.

And he wasn’t the only one who kept mum on the matter. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio also ducked comment on the Vitter proposal. Lindsey Graham, who is still flirting with a 2016 run, was a vocal proponent of ending birthright citizenship in 2010, calling it a mistake. “They come here to drop a child, Graham said back then. “It's called ‘drop and leave.’ To have a child in America, they cross the border, they go to the emergency room, have a child, and that child's automatically an American citizen. That shouldn't be the case.”

Other candidates seem to come down on the opposite side of the argument. Jeb Bush wrote in a 2006 email that “penalizing the children of illegal immigrants by denying US citizenship is wrong. The focus should be on protecting our borders rather than these piling on provisions that are punitive to many who have made a great contribution to our country.” Rick Perry told the Daily Beast in a 2011 interview that while it was worth having a discussion about the 14th Amendment’s citizenship clause, he didn’t necessarily support efforts to change things. “But from the standpoint of does it rise to the level of having a constitutional prohibition or removal of that, probably not,” Perry said. Of course, Perry has since lurched hard to the right on immigration matters, so he may have changed his mind.

Birthright citizenship is at the heart of the debates over immigration and what it means to be an American. Given that large portions of the Republican Party want to eliminate it as part of a hardline immigration policy platform, the GOP’s 2016 candidates should state for the record whether they’re in favor of radically redefining the core principle of American citizenship.

By Simon Maloy

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