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Failed argument about a fundamental American right

This week the House Judiciary Committee holds a hearing entitled “Birthright Citizenship: Is it the Right Policy for America?”

This follows legislative attempts by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) to legislate around the 14th Amendment’s guarantee that “all persons born … in the United States … are citizens” by requiring every new baby to prove that one of their parents is legally authorized to be in the country. This folly continues the stunning drumbeat of anti-immigrant bills, votes, and hearings in the 114th Congress.

{mosads}The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868 after the deadliest war in our nation’s history. The bloody purgation of slavery required constitutional enshrinement in the 13th Amendment, which formally abolished “the cruel institution.” But it also required constitutional reinforcement of America’s stated, albeit unrealized, founding principle – that “all men are created equal.”

Now, almost 150 years later, some members of Congress are seeking to rewrite the Constitution and deeply established Supreme Court precedent by reinterpreting the 14th Amendment’s citizenship clause. 

Why do these Republican members want to revive the long moribund policies that their party’s most revered president (Lincoln) fought so hard to eradicate? Why do they want to create once again a legally sanctioned vulnerable and exploited underclass in this country? In order to advance an extreme anti-immigrant agenda under the dubious theory that changing the 14th Amendment’s citizenship rules will deter unauthorized immigration.

But repealing such a constitutional protection would be a nightmare to implement, while doing nothing to curb unauthorized immigration. Removing citizenship upon birth would mean that every single person (immigrant and native-born alike) who has a child in the United States will have to produce documentation to prove their own legal status. That would be no small burden for many people who already have trouble establishing their citizenship due to an inability to produce passports, naturalization papers, birth certificates and the like.

And making such a system work would require a new and cumbersome bureaucracy, bringing the Department of Homeland Security into every delivery room across the country. We would need a new federalized birth registry in order to ensure that citizenship status is allocated properly, something that is currently in the hands of states and localities. To put things in perspective: Roughly 4 million children are born in the U.S. every year, each of whom would encounter vast bureaucratic red tape. Instead of reducing unauthorized immigration, such a change could actually increase the numbers of people stuck in limbo, without legal status or nationality, as parents struggle to register their children for citizenship.

It also bears noting that as Republicans announce their candidacy for the president, the party strikes a particularly deaf note by rejecting birthright citizenship, which has the obvious potential to alienate the two fastest growing segments of the electorate: Latinos and Asians. The drumbeat of restrictive and punitive immigration bills and hearings so far this Congress indicates the party is unfazed by the prospect of wearing the anti-immigrant brand in the next election. But that political shortsightedness pales in comparison to the political cynicism reflected in calling into question the constitution’s citizenship guarantee.

The 14th Amendment is not just another immigration policy; it defines who we are as a nation. And it categorically rejects the notion that America is a country club led by elites who get to pick and choose who can become members. Blinded by the fog of anti-immigrant extremism, the House Judiciary Committee would apparently turn back time to the darkest period in American history. Instead of trying to kick people out of their club, they should come to their senses and put the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country on a pathway to legal status and citizenship.  

Fitz is the vice president of Immigration Policy at American Progress, where he directs the organization’s research and analysis of the economic, political, legal, and social impacts of immigration policy in America and develops policy recommendations designed to further America’s economic and security interests.

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