Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- The final state to ratify the 14th Amendment was Ohio -- in September 2003. The Ohio Legislature had passed the amendment in 1867, but then rescinded its approval a year later, claiming it was "contrary to the best interests of the white race." When Ohio finally rectified this embarrassing bit of history, just one legislator -- Republican state Rep. Tom Brinkman from Cincinnati -- voted against it. His opposition was viewed as an isolated curiosity.

Now another Ohio politician, Rep. John Boehner, the House minority leader, questions the centerpiece commitment of the 14th Amendment: birthright citizenship. He is joined by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, along with Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

The Amendment reads: "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." This is not the only place in the Constitution where birth is decisive. Any "natural born citizen" who meets age and residency requirements can be elected president.

Critics of birthright citizenship are in revolt against the plain meaning of words. They sometimes assert that "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" must exclude illegal immigrants. It doesn't. Undocumented immigrants and their children are fully subject to American laws. The idea of "jurisdiction" had a specific meaning in the congressional debate surrounding approval of the 14th Amendment. "The language was designed," says historian Garrett Epps, "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."

Advocates for bloodline citizenship respond: How could the authors of the 14th Amendment have intended to extend citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants when, in 1868, America had no laws restricting immigration and thus no illegal immigrants? This betrays a thin knowledge of history. In 1868, there were a variety of federal laws that restricted naturalization to whites and established waiting periods for citizenship.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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