KISSIMMEE, FLORIDA — Pausing between hundreds of book signings at a mall just a few miles from Disney World, neurosurgeon and new GOP frontrunner Dr. Ben Carson told ThinkProgress that he doesn’t believe the birthright citizenship enshrined in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was ever “intended” for the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants.
“They should not be citizens. I don’t think so,” he said.
But unlike the former GOP frontrunner — hotel mogul Donald Trump, who he recently edged out in the polls — Carson explained that he doesn’t think a constitutional amendment is necessary.
“The interpretation [of the 14th Amendement] is left up to the Congress,” he said. “They don’t have to amend it. They just have to reinterpret it.”
“Clearly it was not intended to be a mechanism for people to come here illegally, have a baby, and use that as an anchor. It was really meant to provide relief for the Freedmen,” Carson continued, referring to the amendment’s original purpose of ensuring former slaves and their children secured the full protections of citizenship. This included Carson’s own ancestors.
While Carson is far from the only Republican candidate to call for stripping birthright citizenship from the children of some immigrants, it is notable Carson openly advocated for this in Florida, where the already-sizable Latino population is growing more rapidly than the general population and expanding its electoral influence. And while Cuban Americans — who have enjoyed special immigration privileges — used to dominate this group, they now make up only a third of Latino voters in the state.
The polling firm Latino Decisions estimates that whoever the Republican primary winner turns out to be, he or she will have to win at least 47 percent of the Latino vote in Florida — and more than 40 percent nationally — to win the general election. Threats of “reinterpreting” birthright citizenship do not sit well with this population, millions of whom have at least one undocumented parent, and 73 percent of whom oppose a change like Carson proposes.
A national survey of voters of all races in 2011 found that a strong majority — 57 percent — do not want any changes to the current definition of birthright citizenship.
Voters need look no further than Texas to see the ramifications of Carson’s proposal. There, some counties have been denying birth certificates to the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants, thus blocking their access to health care, public education, and daycare. This month, a lawsuit will go to trial, backed by the Texas Civil Rights Project, representing dozens of these Texans whose parents hail from Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala.
During Monday’s book event, where he signed hundreds of copies of his new work A More Perfect Union, Carson also voiced support for newly elected House Speaker Paul Ryan’s vow that he will refuse to bring any immigration bills up for a vote while President Obama remains in office.
“The president has not always been forthright when it comes to his agenda,” Carson told reporters. “I can understand why someone might be a little bit suspicious of working with him on such an important issue.”
About two-thirds of Latino voters say that it’s extremely important or very important to have changes in federal immigration policies and to pass new immigration legislation soon, according to the Pew Research Center. The same poll found that about one-third of Latino voters say that they would not vote for a candidate if they disagreed with the candidate on immigration policy.
A new poll from Viewpoint Florida, however, places Carson third in the state, behind Donald Trump and Marco Rubio.