Key Senator Attacks Birthright Citizenship

After Senator John McCain (R-AZ) quit the field, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) became the leading GOP voice to demand comprehensive immigration reform. That all came to an end last spring, when Senator Graham withdrew from long-running bipartisan negotiations with Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, negotiations that were designed to find legislative middle ground in an increasingly contentious debate. At that time, Senator Graham was the lone Republican to openly support CIR, and his withdrawal from these efforts to craft a bipartisan bill effectively scuttled CIR for the foreseeable future.

If Senator Graham once represented the forces of moderation on the conservative side of the immigration debate, he seems to have repented of his earlier restraint. According to The Miami Herald, Senator Graham now supports a constitutional amendment to prevent children of illegal immigrants from automatically receiving U.S. citizenship, by virtue of their birth here – often called “birthright” citizenship. (See Graham Does About-Face on Immigration, by James Rosen, McClatchy Newspapers, The Miami Herald, 29.Jul.2010.) That right is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reads, in pertinent 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.”

As the Miami Herald points out, the 14th amendment was ratified in 1868, in the wake of the Civil War, “to guarantee citizenship to former slaves.” The blogosphere is abuzz with anti-immigrant commentators who are seeking clever ways to parse the plain language of the 14th Amendment, to deny the birthright citizenship expressly and unambiguously granted there. In the view of some conservative commentators, birthright citizenship does not apply to illegal immigrants because (supposedly) they are not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States. Tell that to the thousands of illegal immigrants who are now in prison for various offenses, large and small, who certainly have been subject to federal and state jurisdiction in the United States. Should they all be released immediately?

By calling for amendment to the Constitution, Senator Graham at least demonstrates the recognition that the 14th Amendment already provides birthright citizenship; he does not seem inclined to specious reasoning to nullify the provision by creative (mis)interpretation. Still, one wonders what caused Senator Graham to cast his lot with the fringes of the anti-immigrant movement, after standing courageously for pragmatic moderation in his work to craft a bipartisan CIR bill. No doubt it is disconcerting to lead the charge when nobody from your own party is behind you, and many of your constituents are flatly opposed to your position. However, Senator Graham does not have to face reelection until 2014, so this can’t simply be simply a case of pre-election panic, trying to recapture his base of support before November. Perhaps he has sensed that his constituents will not soon forget, nor forgive, his earlier moderation on immigration, and he is trying to make it up to them. Should Senator Graham continue in this vein, CIR will be that much harder to achieve, for want of the leadership he once provided in his more moderate days.

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