Republicans tarnish their legacy by running against 14th Amendment -- chat with E.J. Dionne

E.J. Dionne
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, August 5, 2010; 10:00 AM

E.J. Dionne discusses why he thinks Republicans risk their party's greatest legacy by running against the 14th Amendment, which grants U.S. citizenship of anyone born in the United States.

Column: Is the GOP shedding a birthright?


Rumson, NJ: You ignore the clause "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" in the 14th amendment. Illegal aliens were never covered by the 14th amendment until Justice Brennan decided they should be in 1982. The author of the citizenship clause in the 14th amenment, Sen. Jacob Howard of Michigan, stated: "This will not, of course, include persons born in the United States who are foreigners, aliens, who belong to the families of ambassadors or foreign ministers."

Do you have no shame? Or is it that you are just ignorant?

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Good morning to everyone, and I look forward to this dicussion.

Let me just answer the most strongly worded question first: I do have shame and I am not ignorant. Advocates of your view keep quoting Sen. Howard as if he were the one and only voice in what was a raucous debate that included many points f view among supporters of the Amenmendment. You can't just use a single quote from a single Senator and say that settles the question.

The history of the debate suggests a different view. Here is what Garrett Epps, a law profesor I quoted in the column and the author of the best recent book on the 14th Amendment says about the citizenship question: "A review of the legislative debates during the framing of the Amendment reveals little evidence to support this contention [meaning the view of my correspondent and those who agree with him.] It indicates that the language was designed to exclude two and only two groups: (1) children of diplomats accredited to the United States and (2) members of Indian tribes who maintained quasi-sovereign status under federal Indian law as it existed in 1868. The contrary contention arises out of a partial and strained reading of the debates and an at best partial understanding of the intellectual background of the Amendment. That proponents of a narrower view propound their interpretation as embodying the 'clear intent' of the Framers seems to contrary to the record as to raise questions about the very meaningfulness of 'originalist' arguments in general."

(Here's the link

I think that is a fair reading of the history. Thanks for the question.


14th - Intent?: I am NOT a strict constructionist, believing that what was going on in the 1700's has very little to do with the 21st century issues. However, can you provide a little history of the intent of the 14th amendment? Was it included for the purpose of populating the country, or something else?? Thanks

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Thanks. I just offered a little history. The core purpose of the section of the 14th Amendment we are talking about was to create a national definition of citizenship in the Constitution that could not be altered or restricted by the states. It was obviously a reponse to the Constittion's ambiguity about the status of black Americans and the Dred Scott's decision's dreadful --sorry for the pun -- effort to exclde blacks from rights. The immigrant issue was not a primary part of the debate, but as I noted in answering the first question, Congress was aware of the issue, it came up, and there is ample evidence that Congress knew that the rights it extended went well beyond African-Americans and included immigrants. Thanks again.


Falls Church, Va.: Dear Mr. Dionne - In your column today you made clear that you find the asthetics of the arguments of those who wish to address the problems presented by "anchor babies" (sorry) to be unpleasant. "Anchor baby" is a harsh term and "dropping a baby" is offputting at least. Granted, but you never really address the question itself.

Is the problem of illegal immigrants coming across the border to have children real? If so, is it bad enough that it needs to be addressed in law or policy? If so, given the 14th Amendment and the way it is currently interpreted, how do we fix the problem other than by amending the Constitution? More importantly, how do we answer any of these questions if those who raise them are accused of being offensive?

Am I wrong, or is it impossible to address an issue if, at the outset, you cannot even raise it?

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Thanks. The problem with live chats is that you don't have time to go back and research all answers to good questions. I know I read something in the last few days -- it may have been in Connie Schultz's column -- that included data suggesting that this is a very limited problem. And we know that the vast maority of immigrants come to our country for work and opporunty, not to have their children born here. I think a quick Google search will find you the data you are looking for. Many thanks.


Arlington: I wonder how they would prefer to determine who a "real" American citizen is...Maybe we could give everyone a test and ask things only "real" Americans would know ... What does the electoral college do? What are the three branches of government? Wait. Less than half the population knows those things. Here's one: Name all of the Kardashians.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: I have no idea! But there is an interesting point in your question: Could all of us Americas who have spent all our lives in this country pass the citizenship test? I think we need more emphasis in our schools on civics education -- but that is for another chat! Thanks for the thought.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Dionne, Supporters of repealing the 14th amendment cite curbing the flow of immigrants who solely come here to have a child and then stay here as their reason. However, isn't the draw of jobs a bigger reason many immigrants come here illegally? My notion is that the issue of the so-called "anchor babies," while it certainly happens, pales in comparison to the issue of immigrants who come here for work. Repealing the 14th would solve this smaller issue while comprehensive immigration reform would help the situation as a whole. What options do you see as viable for reforming our clearly broken system?

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Broadly speaking, I think the solution will look much like the proposals the late Senator Edward Kennedy and Senator John McCain were working on when President Bush was in office. Bush himself was genuinely committed to coprehensive immigration reform, for which I give him credit. President Obama's eas are not radically different from Bush's. There are plenty of ideas out there. There are some difficult issues at the margins -- on guest workers, for example -- but I don't think we lack for ideas to get this solved. They cme down to more effective enforcement combined with a path to citizenship. Thanks for the question.


Hahira, Ga.: Mr. Dionne--after reading the first question (hopefully we are not all quite so rude) would you at least agree that perhaps the reason for the exclusion of illegal immigrants had more to do with the lack of illegal immigration at that point, and not some acquiescence and intentional ignoring of this now huge problem...

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Thanks for the civil tone! You are quite right that we did not have real immigration restrictions then. But if you look back at the debate (I tried to give a flavor of it by quoting Andrew Johnson) the issue of immigrants was raised. The framers of the amendment, who worked very hard on its language, dd not choose to say anything about the status of immigrant children, even though doing so might have made it easier to pass the amendment. Again, I go back to my answer to the first question. Thanks again.


Alexandria - Re Supreme Court Precedent: We should bear in mind that the US Supreme Court, as currently constituted, would not permit resort to the debate history unless the actual text of the 14th Amendment citizenship clause is so execrable that it cannot be applied at all. What the 14th Amendment does not do is award citizenship to a child born in the US but only to parents who are subject to a reserved and non-waivable sovereign status. In fact, well before 1982, ALL other children born in the US were deemed US citizens, even if their parents were here illegally. In fact, the last Chief of the US Border Patrol, David Aguilar, is decended from an ancestor who apparently was in the US illegally; that did not impugn the citizenship of that ancestor's US-born child.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Many thanks. Just wanted to share this with others.


Lords Valley, PA: Just like the 535 thieves that travel the roads and buildings of our nation's capitol, you are quick to criticize and blame; but we hear nothing from you expounding on a solution to this current problem. Twelve million people are within our sovereign borders (most of whom we need in the various jobs that they hold), but I hear no suggestions from you on how to solve the problem. Think like Solomon, see the entirety of the situation, and offer us a solution that both parties can get behind!

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Many thanks. Columnists who pretend to be Solomon deserve to be attacked as arrogant! To your point: I outline my view on the issue above and have written about it in past columns. This column had a very specific purpose of urging Republicans to back away from the attack on birthright citizenship. Columnists offer our views 750 words at a time so we can't cover everything. Thanks again.


Raleigh, NC: Are there any Republican leaders that you see maintaining a reasonable approach to immigration that has typically been that of Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham? By that I mean an approach that does not involve editing the 14th Amendment.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: That is an excellent question. In fact, Senator Graham had been working hard on a bi-partisan solution with Senator Schumer of New York. That's why his comments on citizenship were so disappointing. I don't have the roll call in front of me, but there were quite a few Republicans who supported the McCain-Kennedy proposals. Everything is so policized (in a very narrow sense of that word) right now that many who once supported comprehensive reform ae hanging back. But we will have to get back to this, and no bill will pass without significant Republican support. Thanks again.


Hyattsville, Md.: A follow up to the lady or gentlemen of Falls Church, Va. Having discussions about these issues is completely healthy. The problem arises when people began condescending others or dropping unpleasant labels. I am an illegal immigrant who came with my mother and younger brothers when I was 12. Two years later my parents gave birth to my little sister, not to "anchor" because there is no guarantee of you being able to stay here because you have a baby who is a citizen, but because of love, a new life and a new beginning.

If you read spanish-american media you'd realize how many people and how easily they are deported regardless of them having children who are citizens here. As far as I am concerned and as a person who has been in the front lines of the present debate in question I assure you that the 14th amendment is not a problem. Ask yourself why this hasn't been a problem in more than a century. Thank you!

E.J. Dionne Jr.: I wanted to share this. Thanks for writing.


Chicago IL: I'm a lawyer and a historian (and also a naturalized US citizen) and this anchor baby scare is idiotic. First of all, you're right; it's not a big deal in the larger scheme of things and certainly isn't a main cause of illegal immigration. I mean really, can an 8- or 9-month pregnant woman actually swim across the Rio Grande or trek through the Arizona desert? Or just hop a plane and fly up to JFK without even a visa?

Secondly, it's important for the strict constructionists out there to appreciate how different the world was back then. There was no illegal immigration of the type we have now; we were in the midst of breaking Indian treaties and settling land already occupied by others. Our overwhelming concern was about how to treat the millions of freed slaves who were at the mercy of the federal government for even the minimal legal protections they deserved.

Automatic citizenship by birth is one of the hallmarks of this country. Rescinding that right out of some ugly, nativist panic would stain this country's legacy.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Also wanted to share this. Thank you.


Rosslyn, 1015: I want to ask a clarification question because I think it is important in any discussion to make all involved are on the same page. You are not suggesting that we do not need immigration reform, but simply repealing the 14th Amendment isn't the way to go about it. I feel this distinction is important because often people read columns like yours and take something away from it that I don't believe the author intended and then the entire message is lost. (This is what I think happened with the first person to comment.)

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Yes, we absolutely need immigration reform. I think that this talk of repealing or revising the citizenship clause in the 14th Amendment is a red herring and just a bad idea. Thanks for ansking the question.


Nashville, TN: During the most recent Bush led 'comprehensive' immigration debate, the calls to congress were said to be running forty to one against. It's been said that the reason everyone on television regardless of party (from Bloomberg to Murdoch) supports comprehensive reform, while those whose homes aren't staffed by illegal alien housekeepers and nannies (the rest of us) are opposed. Shouldn't the view of the public drive policy?

E.J. Dionne Jr.: There are some ambiguities in the polling, but poll after poll has found that majorities favor comprehensive reform, again defined as better enforcemnt and a path to citizenship. Those calls reflect the fact that with the excepton of the Ltino community, those opposed to comprhensive reform are more mobilized and feel mre strongly than supporters of comprehensive reform. That explains those phone calls. My colleague at USC, Roberto Suro, and I put out a report on the role of the media in the 2007 immigration debate. (You can find it somewhere on the Brookings Instutution website.) An excellent study in there by the Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that media outlets opposed to reform (conservative radio, Lou Dobbs old show gave far more coverage to the debate than neutral or pro-reform media. That played a role, too. Many thank for your question.


St. Cloud Minnesota: The rhetoric behind the question of repealing the 14th amendment is way more frightening than all political speak from both sides.

Do you think there will be hearing or will this fade away after the November elections?

E.J. Dionne Jr.: I am hoping it fades; we'll see. I do hope some Republicans speak up in defense of their party's best traditions. Thanks for the question.


Washington, DC: "There are plenty of ideas out there. There are some difficult issues at the margins -- on guest workers, for example"

Sir, this is the problem with the Dems. Their union backers don't like this, even though any logical proposal has a guest worker program. I don't understand why the unions, who together comprise 8 percent of workers, have such a hold on this administration and the Dems in general?

Columbia, a strong ally, still doesn't have a free trade agreement because of the unions. Its crazy.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Actually, unions, especially those in the service idustry, have sympathy for reform. There are many now illegal workers who cannot exercise their rights -- which, in turn, undercuts the rights of workers born here. I think that is an argument not made often enough: comprehensive reform would actually help protect the rights of those Americans born here. Thanks for the question.


Frederick, MD: I'd be interested in how the "silent majority" of Republicans feel about this. I think we might very surprised.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Me, too. Thanks!


Colorado Springs, CO: This seems to be another tactic of the Republicans to shore up their white male voter base by attacking immigrants and minorities. Do you think Republican leadership really believes this is a good long-term strategy, or do they believe they need to do whatever they can to win the next election and hope minorities and immigrants have short memories?

E.J. Dionne Jr.: It's interesting: I think there may be short term political benefit for some Republicans in a restrictionist stand on immigration, but alienating not only the Latino community but also other immigrant groups and their children is a real long term danger. Some Republicans (George W. Bush for example) understood this. I think others do too and may speak up -- eventually. Thanks.


Scottsdale AZ: Little has been said about the consequences to the country of NOT offering the birthright of U.S. citizenship. As I under stand it, a Turkish underclass has developed in Germany because of similar policies.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Yes. This is an excellent point. Ishare your view that weare much better off with our system than the Western Europeans are with theirs. Again, everyone's rights are better protected when a country does not have a large class of guest workers without core citizenship rights. Thanks for making that point.


Roulette Pa: Will the Republican Party also revisit the argument that a corporation is an individual under the 14th amendment?

E.J. Dionne Jr.: I sure hope so. But I should not get started about Citizens United, about which I have expressed strong views in the column. Thank you!


Arlington, VA: I'm not GOP, but I have a problem with individuals who are in the country ILLEGALLY being able to come over, and have a baby purely to get that kid citizenship and possibly gain it themselves. You should not be able to benefit so greatly from what is an ILLEGAL action. Leave the law the same for anyone in the country on a legal basis, from Chinese visitors to legal Mexican immigrants. The nerve to tell people they are unAmerican because they support enforcing the law is outlandish.

E.J. Dionne Jr.: I agree entirely that we should not call people un-American for their views on this. (I did not use that phrase in my column and didn't write a headline that apparently included that phrase.) And I agree (1.) that there are legitimate differences on this issue, (2.) that we need a good debate over how to solve the roblem. I just think that we should not take the mistaken road of repealing birthright citizenship.

And with that, I have to end this chat having gone a few minutes overtime. Thanks to all who participated, and thanks particularly to the many people whose comments I did not have time to post.


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