Civil War America did not lack for unpopular immigrants. The 1860 census found that 13.2 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born. The figure today is 12.3 percent. During the 14th Amendment debate, Sen. Edgar Cowan of Pennsylvania complained that birthright citizenship would include Gypsies, "who pay no taxes; who never perform military service; who do nothing, in fact, which becomes the citizen." Others objected that the children of Chinese laborers would be covered. Supporters of the 14th Amendment conceded both cases -- and defended them. Said Sen. John Conness of California: "We are entirely ready to accept the provision proposed in this constitutional amendment, that the children born here of Mongolian parents shall be declared by the Constitution of the United States to be entitled to civil rights and to equal protection before the law with others."
The Radical Republicans who wrote the 14th Amendment were, in fact, quite radical. They were critical, not just of the Confederacy's view of citizenship, but of the Constitution's original silence on the issue, which, in their view, betrayed the promise of the Declaration of Independence. Their main goal was expressed in birthright citizenship: To prevent a future majority from stealing the rights of children of any background, as long as they were born in America.
Today's dispute over birthright citizenship reveals the immigration debate in its starkest form. Usually, opponents of illegal immigration speak of giving lawbreakers what they deserve. But this does not apply in the case of an infant. Consider two newborn babies at, say, Parkland Hospital in Dallas. One is the child of citizens, the other of illegal immigrants. Critics of birthright citizenship look at the child of immigrants and feel ... disturbed? Outraged? But why? Do they see a child somehow tainted by illegality? That hardly seems fair. A burden on resources? No more than any other poor child. An alien lacking allegiance? How could they possibly know? Why not a soldier, or an entrepreneur, or, as the Constitution specifically permits, a president?
For nearly a century and a half, Americans have taken the view that these two children at Parkland start their lives as equals. They acquire their rights, not because of their parentage or their bloodline or the permission of politicians, but because they are born in the USA.
The radical, humane vision of the 14th Amendment can be put another way: No child born in America can be judged unworthy by John Boehner, because each is his equal.