Amid immigration debate, Democrats battle GOP over Fourteenth Amendment

Senate Democrats pushed back Tuesday against Republican demands to change a part of the 14th Amendment that grants U.S. citizenship by birthright to children of illegal immigrants.

Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and GOP Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) have called for hearings on the amendment, while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has called for elimination of the provision. 

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The arguing is over the Citizenship Clause to the 14th Amendment, which was adopted in 1868 during the Reconstruction era. The clause was intended to reverse the 1857 Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case that denied citizenship to African-Americans. The Supreme Court subsequently interpreted the clause to mean that children born in the United States have an inherent right to citizenship.

Republicans maintained Tuesday that modern times present a much more difficult situation, with immigration stressing the country’s resources and dividing the country.

“I’m supportive of [changing the provision] because at the time the amendment was put in, transportation was different, the environment was different and we didn’t have as much crime,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). “Just a lot of things were different.”

Democrats say the calls are merely election-year politics that shamefully target children.

“It’s outrageous,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “To target children on this makes no sense. It’s the Constitution. It’s what we’ve done our entire lives. It’s all about politics and Republicans trying to gin up their base. It’s one of those distractions that just puzzles me.”

“The Republicans have to decide if they only like one amendment, which is the second,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), referring to the right to bear arms. “I happen to like all of the amendments. They just seem to like only the second one.”

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said a change would introduce a dangerous precedent of tying citizenship to political beliefs.

“We ought to leave the 14th Amendment alone. It allows for citizenship that’s not based on political considerations,” he said. “Once you introduce political considerations, it degrades citizenship. If you’re born here, you’re a citizen. Period. No tests, no profiling, nothing else.”

On Monday, McConnell became the highest-ranking Republican in Washington to endorse the idea of at least exploring a change to the provision.

“I haven’t made a final decision about it, but that’s something that we clearly need to look at,” McConnell said. “Regardless of how you feel about the various aspects of immigration reform, I don’t think anybody thinks that’s something they’re comfortable with.”

Last weekend, Kyl told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that he too wants to hold hearings, saying the question comes down to: “If both parents are here illegally, should there be a reward for their illegal behavior?”

Graham, meanwhile, told Fox News on Friday that “birthright citizenship is a mistake.”

Graham is working with Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) to study how the provision could be reversed, either by the amendment process or by some kind of legislation. Chambliss noted that countries such as Ireland have already repealed citizenship birthright laws.

“It’s something that not only needs to be discussed,” Chambliss said. “Our situation may be a little different than Ireland, but we’re certainly going to explore what they did. It may be as simple as giving Congress the authority to act legislatively, or it may take a constitutional amendment. I’m not sure yet.”

The idea also has traction among House Republicans, where Rep. Gary Miller (R-Calif.) is leading the drive for the Birthright Citizenship Act, which would deny citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants by statute instead of repealing the amendment.

The legislation has 93 co-sponsors, including prominent members such as Reps. Lamar Smith (R-Texas.) and Mike Pence (R-Ind.).