The 14th Amendment to the Constitution, granting automatic citizenship to any baby born on American soil, has been a proud achievement of the Party of Lincoln for 150 years. But now House Republicans are proposing to undo it. Post columnist Dana Milbank explains. (Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

The Civil War era’s 14th Amendment, granting automatic citizenship to any baby born on American soil, is a proud achievement of the Party of Lincoln.

But now House Republicans are talking about abolishing birthright citizenship.

A House Judiciary subcommittee took up the question Wednesday afternoon, prompted by legislation sponsored by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and 22 other lawmakers that, after nearly 150 years, would end automatic citizenship.

The 14th Amendment, King told the panel, “did not contemplate that anyone who would sneak into the United States and have a baby would have automatic citizenship conferred on them.” Added King, “I’d suggest it’s our job here in this Congress to decide who will be citizens, not someone in a foreign country that can sneak into the United States and have a baby and then go home with the birth certificate.”

It’s no small task to undo a principle, enshrined in the Constitution and upheld by the Supreme Court, that defines the United States as a nation of immigrants. It’s particularly audacious that House Republicans would undo a century and a half of precedent without amending the Constitution but merely by passing a law to reinterpret the 14th Amendment’s wording in a way that will stop the scourge of “anchor babies” and “birth tourism.”

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), during a House Judiciary Committee meeting in 2013. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Judiciary Committee Republicans brought in three experts to testify in support of this extraordinary maneuver (a lone Democratic witness was opposed), and they evidently had to search far and wide for people who would take this view, because they ended up with a bizarre witness: an octogenarian professor from the University of Texas named Lino Graglia.

This would be the Lino Graglia who caused a furor in 1997 when he said that Latinos and African Americans are “not academically competitive with whites” and come from a “culture that seems not to encourage achievement.” He also said at the time that “I don’t know that it’s good for whites to be with the lower classes.”

This is also the same Lino Graglia who said in a 2012 interview that black and Hispanic children are less “academically competent” than white children, and he attributed the academic gap to the “deleterious experience” of being reared by single mothers. When the interviewer, a black man, said he had a single mother, Graglia said that “my guess would be that you’re above usual smartness for whites, to say nothing of blacks.”

And this is the very same Lino Graglia whose nomination for a federal judgeship in the 1980s fell apart amid allegations that he had urged Austin residents to defy a court-ordered busing plan and had used the racist word “pickaninny” in the classroom.

Abolishing automatic citizenship for babies born on American soil, and having Graglia make the case, probably won’t help Republicans overcome their problems with minorities, who are gradually becoming the majority. Democrats, by happenstance, presented a sharp contrast to the GOP effort Wednesday: Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and others met at Washington’s Carnegie Library with a coalition including immigration and civil rights advocates to launch a new jobs campaign, “Putting Families First.”

At the birthright hearing, King got things going by informing his colleagues that “birth tourism has grown substantially” and that it costs $48,000 for a Chinese national to fly to the United States, have her baby, get a birth certificate and take the child back to China. Though conservatives generally take a dim view of international law, King said the United States in this case should follow “almost every other industrialized country” in abolishing birthright citizenship.

Graglia dutifully informed the committee that “a law ending birthright citizenship should and likely would survive constitutional challenge.” But consider the source: a man who by his own account takes “a very limited view of the power of the Supreme Court” and breezily dismisses contrary precedents.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif) mentioned Graglia’s “pickaninny” comment and his position on busing. After Lofgren’s time expired, Graglia blurted out: “Your bringing up . . . this alleged statement of ‘pickaninny’ is in the nature of slur. I don’t know why you’re bringing up these insulting things that have nothing to do with” his testimony.

Minutes later, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) read aloud some of Graglia’s other comments about minorities. “It seems some underhanded move is being made here,” the professor protested, saying he “never made a comment that in any way implied the inferiority of any group.”

The congressman asked that Graglia’s past statements be entered into the record. But Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) complained that the line of inquiry was “a non-germane subject for this hearing.”

On the contrary, it gets right at the heart of the matter.

Twitter: @Milbank

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