It is all too appropriate that the 2016 Republican presidential nominating contest has been roiled by an argument over birthright citizenship. It’s an issue that has traction mainly among some fringey conservative legal thinkers and grossly nativist talk radio hosts who believe that the 14th Amendment is being wrongly interpreted to provide children of undocumented immigrants with U.S. citizenship. Over the past few years the GOP has happily ceded the immigration debate to those same fringe elements, and now they have a high-wattage champion in Donald Trump, who wants to end birthright citizenship as part of his draconian and illegal plan for halting undocumented immigration. Trump’s proposal has forced other candidates to choose a side: do they stand with the nativists, or do they adhere to the longstanding interpretation of the Constitution?
It’s a tough choice, given the political risks, but Wisconsin governor Scott Walker thinks he’s found a third way: mumble and hand-wave in the hope that the whole issue just sort of disappears. As Jim Newell wrote this morning, Walker’s take on the birthright citizenship issue last week was a hot mess of vague and contradictory nonsense in which he seemed to take a position in favor of ending it, then clarified that he hadn’t taken a position, and then re-clarified that he wouldn’t take a position.
Yesterday on ABC News, he added yet another layer to this delicious parfait of incoherence and obfuscation: he doesn’t support ending birthright citizenship, and any discussion of the issue a distraction from what really matters:
STEPHANOPOULOS: I understand that's what you feel we have to address, but this is simply a yes or no question. Do you support that line of the Fourteenth Amendment?
WALKER: Well, I said the law is there. And we need to enforce the laws including those that are in the Constitution. My point is having this debate about anything else when we don't have politicians who are committed to actually securing the border and enforcing the laws, which means very simply in our country e-verify. Making sure that every employer ensure that the people working for them are legal to work in this state -- in this country. That will resolve the problems you're talking about and that's what I've been talking about this week.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're not seeking to repeal or alter the Fourteenth Amendment.
WALKER: No. My point is any discussion that goes beyond securing the border and enforcing the laws are things that should be a red flag to voters out there, who for years have heard lip service from politicians and are understandably angry because those politicians haven't been committed to following through on those promises.
Walker is already viewed suspiciously by the hardline anti-immigrant elements of the GOP’s conservative base given his flip-flop on a pathway to citizenship. This latest bit of stumbling incoherence certainly won’t do anything to improve that relationship. Opponents of birthright citizenship believe (against the evidence) that pregnant immigrant women are crossing the border in droves to give birth and cash in on their children’s citizenship status. They see it as one of the primary drivers of undocumented immigration. Walker struggled for a week to provide an answer on what he’d do to change that, and then he settled on “nothing because it’s not as important as other stuff.”
The policy Walker is proposing in lieu of altering the Constitution is still absurdly harsh and no more realistic. He’s promising to step up enforcement to such a high degree that the whole issue of birthright citizenship becomes moot – lock down the border and deport enough people, he argues, and you don’t have to worry about children of immigrants obtaining citizenship.
Even if this lame evasiveness doesn’t end up costing Walker support among immigration hardliners, he’s still setting himself up for problems down the road, should he win the Republican nomination. A Univision poll of Latino voters released last month tested several Republican candidates in head-to-head match-ups with Hillary Clinton, and Walker drew a miserable 20 percent – seven points lower than Mitt Romney’s abysmal Latino support in 2012. For a party that recognizes the need to expand its demographic appeal, that’s a bad place to start, and Walker's plan to resolve the birthright citizenship question through mass deportation isn't going to make things better.