Earlier this year, Sens. David Vitter (R-LA) and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced a resolution that would amend the Constitution to eliminate the guarantee that all persons born in the U.S. are automatically citizens. “Citizenship is a privilege, and only those who respect our immigration laws should be allowed to enjoy its benefits,” said Paul in a press release at the time. Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives and in conservative state legislatures across the country, right-wing lawmakers have been introducing legislation that would simply reinterpret the 14th amendment’s citizenship provision to prevent the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants from obtaining citizenship.
Vitter and Paul similarly argued that neither the language nor the intent of the 14th amendment were meant to confer “birthright citizenship to the children of illegal aliens.” Yet the fact that their initial proposal involved actually going through the trouble of modifying the Constitution signaled quite the opposite. This week, the two senators addressed the legislative dissonance by introducing a bill that’s essentially a carbon copy of Rep. Steve King’s (R-IA) birthright citizenship proposal in the House. Vitter and Paul, along with Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Jerry Moran (R-KS), say their legislation “requires the federal government to limit automatic citizenship to children born to at least one parent who is a citizen, legal resident, or member of the military.”
Yet, rather than seeking two thirds of Congress and three-fourths of all the states to amend the Constitution, they now simply seek to redefine it by amending the Immigration and Nationality Act. It seems unlikely that Vitter and Paul’s bill will get the 60 votes it needs to get passed — at least in the current Congress. Even if it did, the whole premise that the “subject to the jurisdication thereof” language of the 14th amendment doesn’t apply to undocumented immigrants is pretty bogus in light of judicial precedent. The 14th amendment is relatively explicit about the fact that “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” are in fact “citizens of the United States.” The Supreme Court, at various times, has ruled that “the Fourteenth Amendment extends to anyone, citizen or stranger, who is subject to the laws of a State, and reaches into every corner of a State’s territory. That a person’s initial entry into a State, or into the United States, was unlawful, and that he may for that reason be expelled, cannot negate the simple fact of his presence within the State’s territorial perimeter.” (Plyler v. Doe)
Since it’s highly unlikely their proposal will get very far, it raises the question of what Vitter and Paul’s goals really are. It’s one thing to argue in favor of a constitutional amendment. The arguments behind it are still beyond questionable, but at least they are based on a general agreement that the 14th amendment has been rightly interpreted throughout the past century. When people start arguing that the Constitution has been misread for over 150 years, it undercuts the legitimacy of the millions of Latino and Asian citizens who at some point in their family tree had citizenship conferred to them through an immigrant family member who came to the U.S. during periods when most foreign residents lacked formal “legal” status. Given the fact that Vitter and Paul waged two of the most blatantly racist campaigns last year, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s exactly what they’re trying to accomplish.