Time for a real debate on citizenship, Part Two

Sen. Lindsey Graham’s call for a revisiting of “birthright citizenship” has received mixed reviews from conservatives. Some dismiss the idea out of hand. But others, including John, think it warrants real debate.
I agree with John. As a matter of principle, it is difficult for me to understand why illegal immigrants should profit from their illegal conduct by gaining the enormous benefits associated with the grant of citizenship to their offspring. And, as a pragmatic matter, continuing to confer citizenship on the massive number of children born to illegal immigrants could profoundly alter the nature of our citizenry.
Because birthright citizenship is mandated by the Fourteenth Amendment, revoking this right would require a constitutional amendment. Critics of the idea rightly note that the Constitution should not be amended lightly. But there is little that is more basic to what constitutes a nation than the character, skills, values, patriotism, and cohesion of its citizens. Thus, the issue of who automatically becomes a citizen strikes me as precisely the kind of issue that might properly be addressed by constitutional amendment.
I’ve seen two main arguments against revisiting birthright citizenship. The first – which to me barely counts as an argument — reminds us of how monumental the Fourteenth Amendment is. It was, among many other salutary things, the answer to the Dred Scott decision.
But the amendment Sen. Graham and others have in mind would not disturb any aspect of the Fourteenth Amendment except the grant of citizenship to the offspring of people who are here illegally. None of the achievements that people point to when they praise the Amendment would be implicated.
In other words, this is a discrete fix designed to address what surely is an unanticipated consequence of the Fourteenth Amendment. Those who enacted the Amendment almost certainly had no inkling that it would reward illegal aliens on a massive scale, thereby possibly altering the nature of our citizenry. Alternatively, if they did anticipate this consequence, their judgment can reasonbly be re-assessed.
The second argument is that the problem that ought to concern us is illegal immigration itself, and that if this phenomenon were brought under control, we wouldn’t have to worry about birthright citizenship. Furthermore, the argument goes, pursuing a constitutional amendment aimed at birthright citizenship would be a diversion from satisfactorily addressing the real problem.
My view, though, is that the government is unlikely ever to substantially curtail illegal immigration. The problem, in its current incarnation, has been identified and debated since at least the 1980s. During this time, we have had five presidents – some liberal, some conservative, and some more or less centrist. Under all of them, illegal immigrants have flooded into the country.
Maybe this is just bad luck, but I don’t think so. First, keeping illegal immigrants out of the country is an enormously difficult task given the length of our borders and the forces impelling outsiders to get in.
Second, the political will to accomplish this task is sorely lacking. The Democrats don’t seem genuinely to think that illegal immigration is a serious problem. Neither do important constituencies within the Republican party, notably the business community. Indeed, at least during reasonably good economic times, many ordinary Americans of all political persuasions are happy to have a pool of cheap, hard-working laborers available to perform a variety of not terribly attractive work.
But while the government is bad at enforcement, it is good at altering status. This is why pro-illegal immigration forces offer a grand bargain that includes tougher enforcement and amnesty. They understand that enforcement is a chimera but that amnesty can be accomplished with the stroke the pen.
A stroke of pen can also change the rules on birthright citizenship. The road to that stroke would be most arduous, but at least the effort would hold the promise of something real at the end.
I am not arguing, however, that ending birthright citizenship is necessarily a good idea. Such a change would have consequences not discussed here, and they need to be considered carefully. And, though birthright citzenship is likely to change the nature of our citizenry, the probable significance and meaning of the change needs to be explored. Finally there are also potential political considerations to contemplate.
But conservatives should not be quick to dismiss the idea. Instead, as John says, it’s time for a real debate on citizenship.