Viewpoints

Dana Milbank: Republicans aim at citizenship by birth

Dana Milbank
Dana Milbank Washington Post Writers Group

WASHINGTON – The Civil War era’s 14th Amendment, granting automatic citizenship to any baby born on American soil, is a proud achievement of the Party of Lincoln.

But now, House Republicans are talking about abolishing birthright citizenship. A House Judiciary subcommittee took up the question Wednesday afternoon, prompted by legislation sponsored by Rep. Steve King of Iowa and 22 other lawmakers that, after nearly 150 years, would end automatic citizenship.

The 14th Amendment, King told the panel, “did not contemplate that anyone who would sneak into the United States and have a baby would have automatic citizenship conferred on them.”

It’s no small task to undo a principle, enshrined in the Constitution and upheld by the Supreme Court, that defines the United States as a nation of immigrants. It’s particularly audacious that House Republicans would undo a century and a half of precedent without amending the Constitution but merely by passing a law to reinterpret the 14th Amendment’s wording in a way that will prevent “anchor babies” and “birth tourism.”

Judiciary Committee Republicans brought in three experts to testify in support of this extraordinary maneuver (a lone Democratic witness was opposed), and they evidently had to search far and wide for people who would take this view, because they ended up with a bizarre witness: an octogenarian professor from the University of Texas named Lino Graglia.

This would be the Lino Graglia who caused a furor in 1997 when he said that Latinos and African Americans are “not academically competitive with whites” and come from a “culture that seems not to encourage achievement.” This is the same Lino Graglia whose nomination for a federal judgeship in the 1980s fell apart amid allegations that he had urged Austin residents to defy a court-ordered busing plan and had used the racist word “pickaninny” in the classroom.

Abolishing automatic citizenship for babies born on American soil, and having Graglia make the case, probably won’t help Republicans overcome their problems with minorities, who are gradually becoming the majority.

At the hearing, King got things going by informing his colleagues that “birth tourism has grown substantially” and that it costs $48,000 for a Chinese national to fly to the United States, have her baby, get a birth certificate and take the child back to China. Though conservatives generally take a dim view of international law, King said the United States in this case should follow “almost every other industrialized country” in abolishing birthright citizenship.

Graglia dutifully informed the committee that “a law ending birthright citizenship should and likely would survive constitutional challenge.” But consider the source: a man who by his own account takes “a very limited view of the power of the Supreme Court” and breezily dismisses contrary precedents.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, mentioned Graglia’s “pickaninny” comment and his position on busing. After Lofgren’s time expired, Graglia blurted out: “Your bringing up … this alleged statement of ‘pickaninny’ is in the nature of slur. I don’t know why you’re bringing up these insulting things. ...”

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., read aloud some of Graglia’s other comments about minorities. “It seems some underhanded move is being made here,” the professor protested, saying he “never made a comment that in any way implied the inferiority of any group.”

The congressman asked that Graglia’s past statements be entered into the record. But Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, complained that the line of inquiry was “a non-germane subject for this hearing.”

On the contrary, it gets right at the heart of the matter.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.

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