'People Come Here to Have Babies'

The creeping nativism of the GOP

Rather than shout, I'll just ask the question in a civil way: Dear Republicans, do you really want to endanger your party's greatest political legacy by turning the Fourteenth Amendment to our Constitution into an excuse for election-year ugliness?

Honestly, I thought our politics could not get worse, and suddenly there appears this attack on birthright citizenship and the introduction into popular use of the hideous term "anchor babies," children that illegal immigrants have for the alleged purpose of "anchoring" themselves to American rights and the welfare state.

Particularly depressing is the fact that the idea of repealing the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States" was given momentum by one of the nation's most reasonable conservatives.

"People come here to have babies," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. "They come here to drop a child. It's called, 'drop and leave.' To have a child in America, they cross the border, they go to the emergency room, have a child, and that child's automatically an American citizen. That shouldn't be the case. That attracts people here for all the wrong reasons." Drop a child? How can a strong believer in the right to life use such a phrase?

I can't do better on this than the Cleveland Plain Dealer's estimable columnist Connie Schultz: "I have lived for more than half a century, and I have yet to meet a mother anywhere in the world who would describe the excruciating miracle of birth as 'dropping' a baby."

Graham has long favored comprehensive immigration reform, so it's hard to escape the thought that his talk of child-dropping is designed to appease a right wing out to get him because he's "too liberal."

Just as dispiriting: Sen. John McCain, another once brave champion of immigration reform who faces an Arizona Republican primary challenge on August 24, tried to duck the issue. He said he supports "the concept of holding hearings" on the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment's birthright citizenship clause.

This is better than endorsing outright repeal, but what a difference from the old McCain whose conscience once compelled him to say of illegal immigrants: "These are God's children as well, and they need some protections under the law, and they need some of our love and compassion."

Nothing should make Republicans prouder than their party's role in passing what are known as the Civil War or Reconstruction amendments: the Thirteenth ending slavery, the Fourteenth guaranteeing equal protection under the law and establishing national standards for citizenship, and the Fifteenth protecting the right to vote. In those days, Democrats were the racial demagogues.

Opponents of the Fourteenth Amendment used racist arguments against immigrants to try to kill it, even though there were virtually no immigration restrictions back then. President Andrew Johnson played the card aggressively, as University of Baltimore law professor Garrett Epps reports in his 2006 book on the Fourteenth Amendment, Democracy Reborn.

"This provision comprehends the Chinese of the Pacific States, Indians subject to taxation, the people called Gipsies, as well as the entire race designated as blacks, people of color, negroes, mulattoes, and persons of African blood," Johnson declared. "Is it sound policy to make our entire colored population and all other excepted classes citizens of the United States?"

Republicans were taken aback that Gypsies were suddenly transformed into a great national peril as part of the campaign against the amendment. In his definitive book Reconstruction, historian Eric Foner cites a bemused Republican senator who observed in 1866: "I have lived in the United States now for many a year and really I have heard more about Gypsies within the past two or three months than I have heard before in my life."

The methods of politics don't change much, even if the targets of demagoguery do.

Epps cites an 1859 oration by Carl Schurz, the German immigrant and Republican leader who helped deliver his community's vote to Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Schurz later became a leading backer of the Fourteenth Amendment.

"All the social and national elements of the civilized world are represented in the new land," Schurz declared. In our nation, "their peculiar characteristics are to be blended together by the all-assimilating power of freedom. This is the origin of the American nationality, which did not spring from one family, one tribe, one country, but incorporates the vigorous elements of all civilized nations on earth."

That is the American tradition and the Republican tradition. Senator Graham, please don't throw it away. 

(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

Related: A Stirring at the Border, by Jack Miles; Borderline, by Ananda Rose Robinson;
‘Está Perdido,’ by Joseph Sorrentino

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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Unfortunately, in this case they can't rely the liberal gambit of using a court to change the constitution.


The provision that you claim is so important had nothing to do with immigration.  It is an example of unintended consequences.  The provision was designed to foreclose the ability of states to keep former slaves from being denied citizenship.  It survived unchallenged because there was a need for labor and room for expansion through the mid 20th century.  Only the Phiilipines have the same birthright citizenship.  It is an anachronism.  The appeal to anti-racist sentiment is a cannard.


Your "pro-life" shot is a cheap one BTW.  He was quoting others.  I might ask how anyone who slobbers over the most pro-abortion presidfent in history could call himself pro-life.

Mr. Hannaway,


Thanks for your post.  My understanding is that you are correct in asserting that a primary purpose of the 14th amendment was to, in effect, overturn the Dred Scott decision and clarify that states (and future Congresses for that matter) could not deny citizenship to former slaves.  It seems, from Pres. Johnson's contemporaneous statement, that the effect of the 14th amendment was to extend citizenship to other racial and ethnic minorities as well.


I'm not clear what you mean by Mr. Dionne's "pro-life" cheap shot.  Who was quoting others?  And who were the others he was quoting?  And to what end?


Also, would you include yourself in those who want to change the 14th amendment?  If so, what are your reasons?  (If not, why not?)

@Sean H.

What did you mean that: "Only the Phiilipines have[sic] the same birthright citizenship.  It is an anachronism."

A cursory check on the issue lists these countries as having jus soli approaches to birthright citizenship: Argentina, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Pakistan, Spain, United States, and Venezuela.  (taken from http://www.voiceforvoters.com/?p=47)

     The latent Republican hostility to birthright or "jus soli" citizenship is not the only form that nativism has taken in the recent history of the GOP. John Dean in his book "The Rehnquist Appointment" notes that the late chief justice had been a supporter of Plessy v. Ferguson, the decision that enshrined "separate but equal." During his confirmation hearing, Rehnquist tried to attribute the views he had expressed as clerk to Justice Robert Jackson, by then deceased, to Jackson, but the evidence mustered at the time and later by skeptics of his account makes it clear that the views were truly his. His support for Brown v. Board of Education was always qualified to say the least.

     Of equal interest is the fact that Rehnquist was skeptical of the well-established view that the Bill of Rights was incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment as among the laws to whose equal protection the Fourteenth Amendment provided a constitutional guarantee. This skepticism has remained alive at the margins of the right wing as "dominionism"--namely, the view that though the First Amendment guarantees that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," it does not bar state legislatures from doing so. This was, in fact, the normative view during the early decades of the American Republic. Gradually, the states that had established religions chose to disestablish them. But could they reverse course in this area? The answer seemed to be yes until the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment. The "equal protection" clause in that Amendment seemed to protect all American citizens from the establishment of a state religion even at the state level. 

     At the time, of course, the country had race rather than religion on its mind, but the language of the law clearly could to adherents of different religions as easily as to members of different races. Such has been the dominant assumption, by now, in a series of church-and-state questions. But if, as E.J. Dionne points out, the Fourteenth Amendment is now being called into question with reference to an ethnic group, the same could happen with reference to a religion.

Jack Miles

The XIV Amendment says: "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."

What part of that doesn't today's GOP understand?  What is this lack of clarity of meaning about which Sen. McCain wants to hold hearings?

Great piece, E.J.!  :-)

Incidentally, while we're dealing with terminological inexactitude: Mr. Hannaway's equation of "pro-choice" with "pro-abortion" is way off base.  "Pro-choice" means you think reproductive matters are personal and none of the state's business.  I'm not "pro-choice," but I don't consider the President "pro-abortion."



Perhaps more than a cursory look is necessary.  Look at the Canadian law - Yes, you can get citizenship by birth, but ONLY if you are legally in the country - in their case a legal resident.  That's what makes the US diffferent.


It is getting tiresome to listen to these accusations of racism.  No one is saying people should be excluded from legal immigration on the basis of race.  We simply need a rational system.  Tell you what - I'll take the Mexican system - how about that?

I agree with EJ's point:  For over 100 years we have had, thanks to the Republican Party (and I mean that sincerely), a perfectly clear, straightforward definition of citizenship by birth.  It has served our country well, and it continues to do so (in my view).


Immigration is a separate issue, about which it's worth recalling some of our history.  In summary: 


1776 - 1846:  Few if any restrictions on immigrants and citizenship (Africans and American Indians excluded). 


Mid 19th century:  First nativist wave in response to massive Irish and German immigration.


Late 19th century:  Chinese Exclusion Act and the beginning of massive southern and eastern European immigration.


1924:   2nd great nativist wave results in restrictive federal immigration law with national quotas based on race and ethnicity (80% of slots reserved for English, Irish and Germans, limit of 100 Africans per year).


1965:  Immigration reform removes racial quotas and places high value on reuniting familes.


1986:  Bipartisan immigration reform provides way for millions of illegal immigrants to gain legal status.


2010:  For a rational system today, I'd settle for the bipartisan bill John McCain supported in 2007.  Any takers?

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