The Neo-Know Nothings
In the heat of the fiery debate over Arizona’s anti-immigrant law SB-1070, a new attack on immigrant rights is burgeoning within the Republican Party. On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) joined a growing number of GOP policymakers seeking to review or revoke the citizenship clause of 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which states that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” While the call to revoke this birthright citizenship was traditionally confined to fringe political parties and right-wing demagogues, the rising call to repeal the amendment is becoming a mantra of the Republican mainstream. But in championing reform of birthright citizenship, Republican lawmakers are directly undermining “revered U.S. constitutional traditions” and reversing “one of our nation’s unique achievements, embodied in the current president and many others: that descent does not mean destiny.”
FRINGE POLITICS: The effort to revoke birthright citizenship has traditionally been a tenet of fringe, right-wing political groups. Indeed, the anti-immigrant bigotry expressed by contemporary right-wing radicals like former congressman Tom Tancredo reflects the xenophobia present around the time that the 14th Amendment was adopted. In the 1840s and 1850s, the nativist, anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party “rose to prominence” at the “zenith of Boston’s anti-Irish feeling” by opposing “foreign immigration” of Irish Catholics and believing that “Americans must rule America.” As Mother Jones’ Jen Phillips points out, “when you substitute the tea party for the Know Nothings, and Mexicans and Latinos for the Irish, and Phoenix for Boston,” the Know Nothing stance provides a “pretty accurate” reflection of today’s right-wing anti-immigrant sentiment. Another long-standing radical group, the John Birch Society, has been “speaking out” against immigration since 1963 and has called for “congressional action to end automatic birthright citizenship for children born to illegal immigrants.” While the Society insists it represents a mainstream members “from all walks of life,” conservative leader William Buckley “famously denounced” the Society in the early 1960s as “‘idiotic’ and ‘paranoid.’” Now, the Tea Party has picked up the banner, with Kentucky Senate candidate and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul (R) insisting that the constitutional right to citizenship “should be stopped.” A tell-tale sign of the radical nature of today’s right-wing demagoguery is the increasingly virulent rhetoric, characterizing undocumented workers as an “invading army,” using children to secure public benefits and demonizing them as “anchor babies,” a “politically charged term” used to “make these children sound non-human” and “to spark resentment against immigrants.” A “widely circulated” and blatantly sexist email by Minutemen member and Patriots Coalition founder Al Garza said “we need to target the mother” to address “the anchor baby racket” because “men don’t drop anchor babies, illegal alien mothers do.” Last year, Fox News host Glenn Beck sought to legitimize this sentiment, saying “the anchor baby thing has hacked me off…that baby is a child. It’s an anchor. It’s an anchor to stay here. … Why do we have automatic citizenship upon birth?”
MAINSTREAMING THE FRINGE: While previously relegated to the margins of the right wing, Republican policymakers are now embracing the extreme viewpoint and bringing the “anchor baby,” anti-birthright rhetoric into the legislative arena. After crafting the draconian SB-1070 law, Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce (R) has set his sights on an “anchor baby bill” — because granting citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants born on U.S. soil is somehow an “outrageous” “violation of the 14th Amendment.” Despite the twisted logic, Pearce’s idea echoes a burgeoning trend on Capitol Hill. Since 1995, Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA) has tried and failed seven times to pass legislation that would repeal or reinterpret the 14th Amendment. Reflecting growing popularity, Bilbray is receiving help from senior Republican Rep. Lamar Smith (TX), whose legislation to deny birthright citizenship has 93 cosponsors, including House Republican Study Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Price (GA). While these efforts have precedent in the House, the notion of 14th Amendment revision is now taking hold in the Senate. Once thought to be a proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) announced last week that he is considering a constitutional amendment to overturn birthright citizenship because that constitutional right is “a mistake.” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) supported congressional hearings into the amendment that would question whether citizenship is “a reward” for “illegal behavior.” And Sen. McCain (R-AZ), who once preferred a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants over “pleas[ing] the political extremists,” joined his colleagues in calling for hearings against the amendment. In embracing a traditionally radical idea, these senators have moved to the right of outspoken immigration hawks like Lou Dobbs, who insist that “the rule of law” requires recognizing children of undocumented immigrants as “citizens of this country.”
CHANGING THE CONSTITUTION: In their rush to eradicate birthright citizenship from the Constitution, Republican lawmakers are “squarely outside the American tradition.” As a Center for American Progress (CAP) report explains, the conservatives base their exclusive view on “specious” legal reasoning around the Dred Scott v. Sanford case, which found that “only descendants of those fortunate enough to be embraced by the founding generation could claim citizenship.” Conservatives insist that the framers of the 14th Amendment rectified the citizenship issue solely for slave descendants and did not intend it to be extended to immigrants. But, as the CAP report notes, framers of the 14th Amendment “explicitly rejected” that notion of America as a “country club.” As one framer put it at the time, “we are entirely ready to accept” that under the proposed amendment, “children born here” of immigrant 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.” In two landmark decisions, the Supreme Court verified this “clear constitutional mandate” of birthright citizenship, ruling in 1982 that the “fourteenth amendment extends to anyone, citizen or stranger” regardless if “a person’s initial entry into a State, or the United States, was unlawful.” Not only would Republican efforts overturn the Supreme Court’s “time-tested reading” of the Constitution, but their “regressive approach” would have practical implications on American competitiveness, as evidenced by Germany’s restrictions on citizenship for migrant workers. Now, in Germany, “nearly half of foreign students” and “most children from migratory backgrounds, are assigned to the lowest educational track (Hauptschule), which primarily prepares them for low-skilled jobs.” Germany also has the largest disparity in an OECD study that examines immigrant versus native student academic performance. In “a startling contrast,” the majority of the 40 finalists in the 2010 Intel Science Talent Search were first-generation Americans, children of immigrants born on U.S. soil. By removing the constitutional citizenship right, Republicans would flout the Constitution and risk undermining unique achievement within the American citizenry.