The GOP’s disturbing nativist direction

Those who wish to restrict immigration are misinterpreting the 14th Amendment


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After losing the Latino vote so decisively in 2008 and 2012, conventional wisdom had predicted the Republicans would moderate and support some version of comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for the undocumented.

Conventional wisdom was wrong.

Not only have they not moderated, Republicans have doubled down and pushed in a more extreme, nativist direction. Their candidates, most notably Donald Trump, have advocated a mass deportation of the 11 million undocumented, building a 2,000-mile, impenetrable wall on our southern border, rescinding the executive order on the DREAM act and tripling the number of immigration agents.

We have also heard proposals like Chris Christie’s: He suggested tracking non-citizens like FedEx courier packages. Then there is Scott Walker’s idea to build a wall on our northern border with Canada.

Most radically, Trump has proposed ending birthright citizenship for so-called anchor babies. He has been joined ideologically in this endeavor by Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum, among others. Trump says that birthright citizenship remains the biggest magnet for illegal immigrants.

Birthright citizenship refers to a person’s acquisition of U.S. citizenship by virtue of the circumstances of their birth in the country.

Ending birthright citizenship would require addressing the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, whether by court challenge or by constitutional amendment. The 14th Amendment plainly states, in part: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

The 14th Amendment is not any old amendment. The Civil War was fought over this amendment. There is much blood behind it. It negated the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857, which held that neither slaves nor their descendants could ever become citizens. It is not an exaggeration to say that the 14th Amendment is the best reflection of our fundamental national commitment to fairness.

A heavy preponderance of legal scholarship supports the proposition that the ratification debates taken as a whole indicate that the 14th Amendment was designed to extend citizenship to all people born in the United States regardless of the race, ethnicity or alienage of their parents.

I would particularly cite the work of historian Garrett Epps, the author of “Democracy Reborn,” a fascinating history of the 14th Amendment and the fight for equal rights in post-Civil War America. 

Epps points out the incongruity that passionate anti-slavery thinkers who devised the Citizenship Clause as a means of overruling Dred Scott would have any intention to create a new class of noncitizens lacking all rights. 

In that era, immigration restrictionists complained about gypsies and the Chinese. Epps says the framers knew what they were doing and they intended to address both the matter of the former slaves and immigrants in drafting the 14th Amendment. 

They wanted to put citizenship above the politics and prejudices of any given era.

Nativist hysteria is a recurring theme in American history where some ethnic group or other is blamed for failures in the economy. Targets have included Irish Catholics, German-Americans, the Chinese, the Jews and southeastern Europeans, among others.

Attacking birthright citizenship is just the latest incarnation of this deep-seated nativist tendency. This time around, the target is Latinos. How they crashed the economy, exported good jobs from the United States and refused to raise wages is never explained.

In his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the late historian Richard Hofstadter discusses conspiratorial mindset, nativist obsession and the tendency to manufacture self-serving facts to promote an agenda. Trump’s fantasy that the Mexican government is shipping rapists and its worst criminals to America is an example that could have been written about by Hofstadter.

In 2015, it is sad to see a major American political
party, oblivious to our history, going down such a dark direction. 

Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot is an administrative law judge. His column reflects his own views and not those of his employer, the Social Security Administration.

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