Whenever I talk about immigration matters, I try not to let people see that tattoo on my forehead, the one with the Statue of Liberty wrapped in a copy of the 14th Amendment. It’s a conversation killer.
But there’s no avoiding the fact that my day job has a strong influence on the way I view President Trump’s announced decision to get rid of birthright citizenship, something which has been fairly settled law for over a century.
That is, until the topic of illegal immigration became a useful arrow in the campaign quivers of both parties. The GOP, which used to have a healthy appreciation for the contributions of immigrants to society, has morphed into the party of “they all killed Kate Steinle.” And the Democrats have reacted by doing absolutely nothing, even when they were in the majority, to alleviate the problems caused by a broken border and ineffective laws that paralyze families and the economy.
It was inevitable that immigrants would once again become that convenient political football, raw meat for the social media masses.
I’m hip to the games people play, and I usually ignore the comments about criminal aliens, gang members, racist Republicans and the like. That’s because I’m an immigration lawyer and know a lot more about the inner workings of the laws and the real world impact on people like my clients than the Facebook scholars who keep posting links on my page about “birth tourism,” which I thought was what happened when Mary and Joseph were scouting out a room at the inn.
If that makes me sound pretentious, so be it. I tend to hide my law degree under a bushel until I hear something that twists my lower intestine into a pretzel.
And my lower intestine is ready for some mustard this week, because the drumbeat of “eliminating birthright citizenship” has gotten louder. The useful imagery of the caravan at our southern border was diminished somewhat by the intervening tragedies of the pipe bomber and the murderous anti-Semite in Pittsburgh. So the White House did a masterful pivot, and raised the specter of scary “anchor babies” and the harm they pose to good, decent Americans.
The term “anchor baby” was coined about 20 years ago, but it really gained prominence in 2006 when the country was embroiled in a debate about comprehensive immigration reform. When I first heard it, I envisioned Walter Cronkite with a bib and a rattle, until I realized that this derogatory term was being used to denote a child born in the United States who would be able to confer benefits upon an illegal alien parent.
By 2006, I had been practicing immigration law for over a decade, and knew that there was no such thing as a baby who could immediately legalize mommy and daddy. In most cases, that child needed to reach the age of 21 before he or she could sponsor a parent for lawful permanent residence or “the green card,” so it appeared to me as if that anchor were about as heavy as a feather.
Then, proponents of the term started talking about all the government benefits that baby could get, which are really just the same benefits any U.S. citizen is entitled to receive.
And, kaboom!, the whole issue of birthright citizenship reared its anachronistic head. Since the time of the Civil War, the 14th Amendment has held that any person born in the United States and “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” is a native born citizen. Now, Trump and his friends who want to eliminate birthright citizenship or “ius solis” are saying that the children of illegal aliens are not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the U.S. and therefore not entitled to citizenship. I’m having a hard time trying to figure out how an illegal alien who commits a crime in the U.S. is not “subject to the jurisdiction” of our laws, and I’m sure all of those people worried about their daughters being raped by MS-13 members are equally interested.
But even if this were a legitimate argument, there are a lot of problems with the way that the White House is approaching it. First, you don’t fix a policy problem by erasing parts of the Constitution with that pen you swiped from former President Barack Obama. Second, you generally don’t ignore the clear wording of a statute unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary. And most important, you don’t dare change the thing that makes us exceptional: the fact that prince and pauper, invalid and healthy, black man and white woman, are equally entitled to the great gift of citizenship.
Lay off my Constitution, Mr. President.
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.