After his campaign began in June, the real-estate mogul cycled through a series of vague, and sometimes contradictory, policy proposals: Kick “the bad ones” out. Let the good ones stay. No, kick the good ones out too. No, don’t. No, do.
Now, however, the surprise GOP front-runner has unveiled a detailed, and surprisingly hard-line, proposal on the subject. And, in the few days since, a series of Republican presidential candidates rushed to show that they think just like Trump. In a CNN interview Wednesday night, Trump said he wouldn’t need to amend the Constitution to revoke birthright citizenship but such a move would take two full terms as president.
“No. 1, the 14th Amendment is very questionable as to whether or not somebody can come over, have a baby and immediately that baby is a citizen. OK?” Trump told Chris Cuomo. “Amending is too big a deal. It’s going to take — it’ll be two terms. I’d be in my second term or my eighth year by the time — assuming everything went smoothly. … I believe you can win it legally.”
Trump’s call to end birthright citizenship is setting the terms of the debate for his fellow Republicans, whether they like it or not. “Absolutely. We should end granting automatic birthright citizenship to the children of those who are here illegally,” GOP presidential rival and Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) said during an interview with the Michael Medved Show on Wednesday, calling for an end to the longstanding rule that any child born in the U.S. is automatically a citizen. “That has been my position from the very first day of my running for the Senate,” Cruz said
In Cruz’s case, that’s not exactly true: the Houston Chronicle dug up a statement he made as a 2011 Senate candidate, when he told conservatives that trying to overturn birthright citizenship was not worth fighting over. “I think it’s a mistake for conservatives to be focusing on trying to fight what the Constitution says on birthright citizenship,” Cruz said then. “I think we are far better off focusing on securing the border. Because birthright citizenship wouldn’t be an issue if we didn’t have people coming in illegally.”
This week, Cruz became one of several Republicans who said they want to end birthright citizenship, after Trump endorsed the idea — placing the issue center stage in the GOP primary, which will undoubtedly be remembered in the general election. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal tweeted that birthright citizenship should end for undocumented immigrants. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker also seemed to endorse Trump’s idea, but then sought to backpedal. And then, on Wednesday, Ben Carson added his support in Arizona. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have so far said they’d stick with current law.
For advocates of ending birthright citizenship, it’s a stunning turnabout. In recent years, the issue has gone nowhere on Capitol Hill, despite GOP majorities in the House and now the Senate. Louisiana Sen. David Vitter (R) has proposed the idea repeatedly, and gotten little support. In the House, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has thrice proposed ending birthright citizenship, but his bills all died in committee.
If Trump—or Cruz, or Jindal, or Carson—becomes president, how would they go about changing the rules? The sure-fire option would be to amend the Constitution, to change the language of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to anyone born in the United States and “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.”
But some advocates believe it would be easier for Congress to simply pass a law that declared a new meaning for those words. “The phrase that pays is ‘subject to the jurisdiction thereof,’” said Don Bane, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to reduce immigration. Under the new interpretation, he said, “The illegal alien is not subject to U.S. jurisdiction, except for purposes of deportation. Therefore the children born on U.S. soil should not be eligible for citizenship.”
But, even if such a law gets through Congress, it would likely have to survive a Supreme Court challenge — overturning a precedent that’s stood since 1898.
So the process of changing that rule would take months, or years. And it would force Republicans to answer a difficult question: if “birthright citizenship” has survived past waves of concern about immigrants from China, Italy and Eastern Europe, why would they deny it to today’s immigrants?
For Republican leaders, of course, just this discussion of the idea is potentially disastrous. Watching the trend that Trump has sparked, it’s hard to imagine a more direct repudiation of Republican Party’s advice—after the 2012 election—that the GOP should reach out to Hispanic voters, and recognize that “if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”