Americans abhor extremism. It is the reason our democracy has lasted for more than 200 years and why we have rejected both socialism and right-wing radicalism. American political parties have generally hewed to the center, unlike their European counterparts, so that even major political shifts moved the country only from center right (as in the Reagan and Bush administrations) to center left (as in the current administration). It is a lesson that both parties should take to heart, but one that poses special problems for the Republicans as one group of extremists attempts to hijack the GOP on a single issue: illegal immigration.
On the same day as newly elected members of Congress were being sworn to support and defend the Constitution, a group of Republican state legislators were announcing plans to violate both the spirit and the letter of the 14th Amendment. In the name of fighting illegal immigration, some GOP state legislators have announced they will introduce bills in a dozen or more states to deny citizenship to children born in the United States to parents who are not citizens or legal residents. In doing so, they make a mockery of the rule of law, which they claim to defend.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Congress passed the 14th Amendment to grant citizenship to freed slaves, and in doing so established, once and for all, the concept of birthright American citizenship. The language is unambiguous: "All 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 legislators who want to restrict citizenship to those children born to citizens or legal permanent resident aliens point to the "subject to the jurisdiction" phrase as exempting illegal immigrants. But on its face, this is absurd -- if illegal immigrants aren't subject to our jurisdiction, how can we claim they are illegal in the first place?
The "subject to the jurisdiction" language was added to the 14th Amendment after extensive debate to cover two groups: children born to diplomats serving in the United States and Indians, who were deemed citizens of sovereign nations within U.S. territory (American citizenship was later granted to Indians by law, but not until 1924). There was no such thing as an illegal alien at the time -- immigration was unrestricted -- but there were categories of aliens deemed undesirable, who would later be denied the right to become citizens, namely Chinese.
But the 14th Amendment debates made clear that regardless of their parents' status (with the exception of the two categories above), children born in the United States were citizens, and not just U.S. citizens but citizens of the state in which their parents resided. This principle has been upheld in every Supreme Court decision to consider the question for more than 100 years.
Now, egged on by radical population control groups, some Republicans want to reinterpret the Constitution and 11 decades of jurisprudence to subvert the 14th Amendment. How can legislators who claim to hold dear the Constitution so flagrantly disregard the rule of law? They are on a fool's errand that will do great damage to the Republican Party.
There is no question that illegal immigration is a problem, but the way to fix it is not to redefine what it means to be an American in ways that will have unintended consequences. The very same groups that are now pushing this new state legislation, the Federation for American Immigration Reform and its clones, are largely responsible for the mess we find ourselves in now -- the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, an outdated attempt at social engineering to restrict legal immigration to the United States. These groups have a radical population control agenda that aims to reduce the present size of the U.S. population, and they see controlling immigration -- legal and illegal -- as the first step.
Many Republicans who have embraced the anti-illegal immigration aspect of this radical agenda have no idea whom they are in bed with. But the American people are good at sniffing out extremism, and I fully expect they'll reject this latest brand. And the Republican Party would be well advised to do so as well. Republicans cannot claim to be constitutionalists on the one hand and then ignore those parts of the Constitution they find inconvenient on the other.