Repealing the 14th Amendment Would Not Fix Our Immigration System

Taking aim at the 14th Amendment is counterproductive and potentially dangerous.

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Marshall Fitz is the director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington, D.C., think tank.

All Americans can agree that ending illegal immigration and fixing our broken immigration system is of paramount national importance. But we should also be able to agree that taking aim at one of the Constitution's most fundamental provisions—the citizenship clause in the 14th Amendment—is an unwieldy, counterproductive, and potentially dangerous way to address those concerns.

Opponents of birthright citizenship cloak their arguments in legal revisionism, but those arguments fail to hide the extremism inherent in this assault on the 14th Amendment. Their opening line of attack is that the amendment's framers didn't mean what they said and that Congress can therefore restrict who is entitled to citizenship at birth. To reach that conclusion requires a radical reinterpretation of firmly settled constitutional law, not to mention judicial activism of the highest order.

The United States is not a country club. The Constitution declares that "[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside." The framers' intent was to create an objective basis for establishing citizenship—birth—not a subjective standard left to the whim of a majority. The United States has, for that reason, never struggled like other nations to integrate those born here.

[Read more about U.S. immigration reform.]

Creating a permanent subgroup of outcasts born in the United States who can never call it their country would weaken our nation's social cohesion without addressing legitimate concerns posed by illegal immigration. Countries such as Germany that historically denied citizenship to children of immigrants born within their borders still struggle to integrate them because they consistently face limited social mobility.

The genius of our nation, and the key to our success, is rooted in the inalienable freedoms on which the nation was built. The Supreme Court's most infamous decision, Dred Scott v. Sandford, shook those foundations by rejecting the concept of birthright citizenship for the children of slaves. The Civil War was fought and the 14th Amendment ratified in large part to reset that foundation upon the Declaration of Independence's central pillar, "that all men are created equal." Repeal of the citizenship clause would return us to the dark days of Dred Scott by denying citizenship to a new class of children and stigmatizing them at birth.

The imprudent justification for this radical constitutional revision is to prevent the phantom phenomenon of "anchor babies" that supposedly threatens the nation. But the ugly term "anchor baby" derives from a fundamental fiction. There is no self-interested incentive for immigrants to have babies in the United States because a child must turn 21 before being able to sponsor anyone for permanent residence. Hence, no immigration benefit can accrue to the parent of a child born on U.S. soil for at least 21 years.

In short, claims that the citizenship clause is a magnet for illegal immigration are gross exaggerations at best, cynical political pandering at worst.

Ending birthright citizenship is thus a solution in search of a problem. The simplicity and irrevocability of the Constitution's guarantee of fundamental liberty to children born on our soil was, and is, the promise of America. To turn our backs on that promise by repealing the 14th Amendment is the equivalent of killing a fly with a grenade launcher. Ending birthright citizenship would not fix our broken immigration system. It would only make matters worse.

Read why automatic citizenship is a bad idea, by Matthew Spalding, director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. 

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