Over the weekend, the second-ranking member of the Senate Republican leadership, Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) joined Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in considering a repeal of birthright citizenship laws through a constitutional amendment. Birthright citizenship, guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, is the cornerstone of American civil rights and affirms that, with very few exceptions, all persons born in the U.S. are U.S. citizens—regardless of their parents’ citizenship. Although the Supreme Court has consistently upheld birthright citizenship, year after year restrictionist groups and legislators trot out the “repeal birthright citizenship” mantra in the hopes of adding a few more immigration extremists to their dog and pony show audience.
Senator Kyl sidestepped the direct question of whether he supported a repeal during an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday. Instead Senator Kyl egged on Senator Graham’s push for a constitutional amendment that would end birthright citizenship:
The question is, if both parents are here illegally, should there be a reward for their illegal behavior? My colleague Lindsey Graham from South Carolina suggested that we pursue that. And what I suggested to him was that we should hold some hearings and hear first from the constitutional experts to at least tell us what the state of the law on that proposition is.
On the one hand, Senator Kyl sought to take a more deliberate approach to the issue, calling for hearings on the matter. On the other hand, however, he set up an extremely punitive measure for reviewing the question of birthright citizenship—casting the protections of the Fourteenth amendment as a reward for illegal behavior and blithely ignoring the significant importance of an egalitarian measure of citizenship.
Last week, Senator Graham told Fox News that he was “fair and humane in dealing with immigrant children,” but that birthright citizenship is a mistake:
I may introduce a constitutional amendment that changes the rules if you have a child here. Birthright citizenship I think is a mistake … We should change our Constitution and say if you come here illegally and you have a child, that child’s automatically not a citizen.
The truth is, however, that ending birthright citizenship wouldn’t end illegal immigration. As the Immigration Policy Center reports, ‘since children born to undocumented immigrants would presumably be undocumented, the size of the undocumented populations would actually increase as a result of the new policy. While some children could acquire the citizenship of their parents, others would be left with no citizenship or nationality, leaving them stateless.’ How’s that for fair and humane treatment of children?
The idea that ending birthright citizenship would discourage unauthorized immigrants from coming to the U.S. 1) does nothing to address the unauthorized immigrants currently in the U.S. and 2) falsely presumes that unauthorized immigrants’ come here primarily to have U.S. citizen children—not work, flee persecution, reunite with their families or one of the many other reasons someone might come to U.S. Furthermore, eliminating birthright citizenship would mean that all American parents would have to prove the citizenship of their children through some complicated bureaucratic process—not just immigrant parents.
As Margaret Stock, Associate Professor at West Point, points out:
The policy arguments in favor of retaining birthright citizenship are very strong. The policy arguments against it are weak. Even if we believe that it is possible to interpret the Fourteenth Amendment differently than we have been interpreting it for more than a hundred years, it is not clear why we would want to do so. Trading an easy and egalitarian birthright-citizenship rule for one that would cause hardship to millions of Americans is not a smart way to approach our complex immigration problems.
If Senators Kyl and Graham were serious about dealing with our immigration problems—as they once were—they’d spend more time crafting practical solutions instead of pandering to immigration extremists who would rather amend the U.S. Constitution than reform our immigration system.
Photo by G. J. Charlet III.