The notion that President Trump can overturn the right to birthright citizenship through an executive order is different from his other pre-election efforts to stir up the base. This one offers a chance to have a meaningful discussion on a topic that is as relevant today as it was in the 18th century, the 19th century and the 20th, a topic we might have once considered settled but that this administration and Congress have consistently tried to upend.
What does it mean to be a citizen of this nation?
The portion of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that the president seeks to negate is simple and direct:
“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.”
The notion that he could undo this with the simple stroke of a pen elicited an unexpected and swift rebuke from the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, as well as an expected and equally swift approval from Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who lost his moral compass when John McCain died.
McCain was born in 1936 in the Panama Canal Zone where his father was serving in the Navy. Was he a “natural-born citizen” as the Constitution required of a president? Did the laws that made him a citizen fall short?
When he was running nobody, not even his Democratic opponents, was interested in pushing the distinction because everybody understood that a fair reading of the documents and court cases supported his qualifications.
Fairness is no longer a priority in Washington and only the prospect of a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in mid-term elections on Tuesday raises the likelihood that this audacious attempt to abuse executive power, something Republicans used to react to in horror when Barack Obama was president, is likely to be stalled.
But the question remains. When the 14th Amendment was added to the Constitution, the nation was even more divided than it is now. The Civil War had ended only three years earlier, former slaves were struggling to exercise their rights, women still did not have the vote or many other rights and the arrival of workers from Asia to help build the transcontinental railroad and other post-war development inspired sometime violent responses.
Anyone who despairs at our incivility today with its racist content need only look to the debates about the 14th Amendment to see how familiar they seem.
At the risk of oversimplifying a complex issue with more than two centuries of debate, it is instructive to study the simple words and understand that they are clear and direct for a reason. The amendment contains many other provisions but all rely on the straightforward definition of citizenship, a right that allowed for future expansion of rights to women and minorities in many other ways.
The history since the 19th century is clear. Citizenship is defined simply and has only expanded. President Trump and his allies are determined to reverse that history and remove protections and rights to serve their own limited, partisan purposes.