Political Hay

Birthright Pains

Fred Thompson wants to demonstrate toughness on illegal immigration, but real action may have to wait until after the 2008 election.

By 10.9.07

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During his first swing through Florida, Fred Thompson publicly mulled over the idea of repealing birthright citizenship -- the concept embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment that all those born in the United States are entitled to citizenship and the rights and benefits (e.g. voting) that go with it. Proponents of the idea argue that if illegal immigrants' children are not allowed to establish citizenship their parents will be deterred from entering illegally. Florida, with a substantial Hispanic immigrant population, may not have been the best place to raise this issue and local press reports seized on this as another of Thompson's early "gaffes." Thompson spokeswoman Karen Hanretty hastened to explain that Thompson was not making a formal proposal.

Nevertheless it is worth considering whether Thompson's idea has merit, how the politics of repealing birthright citizenship would play out, and where that leaves us in the immigration debate.

Thompson, of course, is not the first conservative politician to raise this idea. Georgia Republican Rep. Nathan Deal and 70 co-sponsors tried to tack a no-birthright-citizenship provision onto the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, but the bill passed the House without it. Deal has introduced a similar measure, HR 1940, in the current Congress. Immigration-restrictionist groups like NumbersUSA have advocated Congressional action, arguing that "an entire industry has built up around the U.S. system of birthright citizenship. Thousands of pregnant women who are about to deliver come to the United States each year from countries as far away as South Korea and as near as Mexico so that they can give birth on U.S. soil."

However, several of the primary combatants in the immigration debate seem less than enamored of changing birthright citzenship. Center for Immigration Studies Executive Director Mark Krikorian, a leading voice in opposing President Bush's immigration policies, had this take in response to my inquiry: "I'm as outraged as anyone about illegal aliens having citizen kids, but I don't think it's a good strategy for us, since it's a symptom of excessive illegal immigration, not a cause. Besides, all the political effort it would take to change the citizenship rule would better be spent trying to get the government to enforce the law." As a public relation matter he also warns off conservatives, saying that "going after little kids...is never a political winner."

Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute, who favors comprehensive immigration reform, also argues that ending birthright citizenship is not a fruitful way to address illegal immigration. He notes that we should not lightly tamper with "established Constitutional doctrine" and that even if proponents were to overcome legal hurdles it is unwise to create a "permanent underclass" of non-citizens as is the case in Germany and other European countries. He acknowledges that the lure of citizenship for their children is a motivating factor for some to illegally enter the country but warns that the downsides of such a measure are "too great" to justify the benefit of deterring some who want to enter illegally.

Moreover, the suggestion that birthright citizenship might be tampered with has not won praise in Florida, a critical state in the Republican primary race. State Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami (a key Hispanic leader in Florida not yet supporting a presidential candidate), was quoted in the Orland Sentinel as arguing that repealing birthright is a "xenophobic" idea that would damage the GOP with Hispanic voters. He remarked: "At best, this would be seen as mean-spirited. At worst, it's seen as bigotry." Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and Mitt Romney's National Hispanic Steering Committee chairman, has also spoken out against the idea.

So if this suggestion does not seem to be a viable proposal, where do we stand on immigration reform? For opponents of Bush's comprehensive approach, no news may be just fine. Krikorian explains: "I don't see any enforcement bill coming out of the Congress, but that doesn't bother me -- what I really want is the administration to show it's willing to start enforcing the laws we have now."

Those who praised the Bush effort and hope that a comprehensive plan will eventually come about are not optimistic that anything can be done in the short term. Griswold contends that we are in a full employment economy and that immigration -- whether legal or illegal -- will need to meet the shortfall of approximately 500,000 workers each year for the foreseeable future. According to Griswold, the "situation will have to get worse" before another immigration reform effort is possible, and in all likelihood not until a new president takes office.

As for the other Republican presidential candidates, most for now are stressing border security and are mum about legalization for those workers who would remain after border security and employer sanctions are enacted. Even John McCain, who helped father the recent immigration reform effort, seems chastened by the effort and repeatedly concedes that so long as the American people have "lost faith" in the government's ability to control our borders comprehensive reform will be stalled for now. Mitt Romney stresses border security and removing "magnets" including employment for illegals and "sanctuary cities" (a clear swipe at his opponent Rudy Giuliani who Romney contends favored such an approach as New York City mayor). Giuliani puts forth a robust border security plan and proposals for biometric I.D. cards and employment verification system -- insisting that only when all that is in place can we discuss some legalized status for those still here. And after the foray into the birthright citizenship debate, even Thompson has largely emphasized the need for border security.

So for as long as a political stalemate prevails in Washington both parties seem content. Democrats can bemoan the lack of a comprehensive plan without having enacted a plan that was sure to anger labor unions. Republicans can assure their political base that a comprehensive plan and any form of "amnesty" are off the table. In that regard, there seems little incentive to push for abolishing birthright citizenship, or any other plan, which would revive the immigration debate in the near term. Immigration, like so many other contentious issues, therefore will likely not be resolved until the next president takes office.

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