Sat04192014

Last updateTue, 04 Nov 2014 9pm

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Don’t touch the 14th amendment

When the Congress and the president began discussing immigration reform several years ago it started as a surprisingly deliberate and thoughtful discussion. But, sadly, this high-minded exchange didn’t last very long. Now, instead of debate, there is a back and forth of hateful rhetoric and some ideas, that, if not irrational, are at least ill considered. Of course, as I said, that wasn’t always the case. And interestingly enough, while generally supported by Democrats, true immigration reform, at one time, had some impressive Republican supporters. President George W. Bush counted himself as an immigration reform advocate and so did John McCain.

But those days are past. Now, in the heat of the midterms that will soon be followed by a run-up to the presidential election, the entire discussion has entered the realm of the bizarre. We’ve got quirky new laws like the one in Arizona (what some have called, “the driving while Hispanic” rule) and most recently a disturbing new proposal to repeal all or part of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Of all the wacky ideas, on both sides, this is the one proposal that scares me the most. Anytime anyone, for any reason, wants to mess with the Constitution, I immediately get worried.
The 14th Amendment was passed almost immediately after the Civil War and was designed to make sure everyone was guaranteed the full protection of the law. Most important in the current debate is the first sentence, which says, “All citizens born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction therein are citizens of the United States.” The intent was to include anyone who had been a slave or was the child of a slave. This was in direct opposition to the 1857 Supreme Court decision in the Dred Scott case, where the court had said African Americans weren’t citizens.
However, as time went on, and various citizenship issues came before the courts, the meaning of this section of the 14th amendment was expanded. In 1898 the Supreme Court ruled that children born in the United States to parents who were citizens of another country were Americans. Other court decisions extended this interpretation even further. Now, the rule is pretty straightforward. If you were born here, regardless of the immigration status of your parents, you’re a U.S. citizen.
The United States is one of the few nations that does this. Germany, Japan, Russia, and the United Kingdom, for example, do not have a practice of immediately extending citizenship to children born in their country whose parents are citizens of another country. Of course, what’s got some of the proponents of a change to the 14th Amendment up in arms is that in the U.S. this interpretation extends to illegal immigrants.
And that’s where the advocates for repeal base their argument. Many illegals go to great lengths to have a child in the U.S. just so their offspring will have citizenship. However, the benefits, contrary to what many think, are mixed. Children, even though they may be American citizens, cannot become “anchors” (thus the term “anchor babies”) for their parents to use as a tool to become citizens. For that benefit to kick in they have a long wait ahead of them. A child who is a citizen can only sponsor his or her parents for a visa to enter the United States if they are over 21 and have the wherewithal to support their mom and dad.
That’s not to say the issue of citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants born in the U.S. doesn’t create problems. Deportation actions where the parents are here illegally and the children are citizens can get extremely messy. Some have argued that the citizenship provision puts the government in a tough bind when it comes to trying to enforce our immigration laws and deport illegal immigrants. They may be right.
However, while this may be a problem, my question, is this: Is this issue big enough, is the damage being done by the abuse of this amendment to the Constitution significant enough to warrant modifying or changing it? Is it worth playing with an amendment that is considered one of the most enlightened extensions of civil rights in our history? Senators Kyl and Graham, as well as a host of House members seem to think so. To which I can only shake my head. But, sadly, their motivation seems to be nothing more than some cynical political grandstanding. All they want is a snippet in the news cycle. My answer to them is simple. Instead of posturing, start working on long-term immigration reform. Let’s address the status of immigrants already here and at the same time guarantee the security of our borders. But please, leave my Constitution alone.
 You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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