On the Right the Shiny Object de la semaine, if not du jour, is birthright citizenship. This is the legal right to citizenship of all babies born in the U.S. regardless of the status of their parents. From time to time conservatives get whipped up into a Nativist frenzy and demand that birthright citizenship be ended, and now is one of those times.
It’s widely believed that birthright citizenship is established by the 14th Amendment, and that it would take a constitutional amendment to change it. But many on the Right deny this. They don’t think the 14th says what it says, and they think birthright citizenship could be ended through an act of Congress. For example, Edward J. Erler wrote in National Review,
A correct understanding of the intent of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment and legislation passed by Congress in the late 19th century and in 1923 extending citizenship to American Indians provide ample proof that Congress has constitutional power to define who is within the “jurisdiction of the United States” and therefore eligible for citizenship. Simple legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president would be constitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.
I don’t have time to write a long post explaining why Erler is wrong. Fortunately, I already wrote that post, more than five years ago. In the earlier post (The Constitutional Anchor Baby Crisis) I respond to a George Will column that made nearly identical arguments to Erler’s. And those arguments are taken pretty much wholesale from the minority opinion in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898) . The detail that Will and Erler both hope nobody notices is that the majority opinion in Wong Kim Ark disagreed.
Erler also tries to argue that Wong Kim Ark only applies to children born of legal aliens, but I read the Wong Kim Ark opinion, and that’s not apparent to me. For one thing, I’m not sure “illegal aliens” was conceptualized then as we conceptualize it now. In any event, Wong Kim Ark was a man born in the U.S. to Chinese laborer parents who were considered “subjects of the Emperor,” at a time when Chinese laborers were strictly excluded from the U.S. But Wong Kim Ark claimed citizenship by right of birth, and the Court agreed with him.
So here’s most of the earlier Anchor Baby post, and you can substitute “Erler” for “Will” if you like.
Now, most legal experts say that because of the 14th Amendment, Congress does not have the power to deny citizenship to so-called “anchor babies.” Doing this would require a constitutional amendment. But righties are arguing no, because the 14th Amendment doesn’t say what it says. This argument was presented by none other than George Will a few days ago, and it is a tortured argument, indeed. But when I read Will’s column I didn’t have the time to research what he was saying to see if it could hold mayonnaise, never mind water.
But lo, yesterday, while researching something else entirely, I ran into a discussion of United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898) (see also Wikipedia discussion of Wong). Wong Kim Ark was a man born in the United States of ethnic Chinese parents. At the time, the Chinese Exclusion Act was in effect. You probably remember that this barred anyone of the Chinese “race” from entering the U.S., and it denied citizenship to ethnic Chinese people already in the U.S. Wong challenged this law, and in a 6-2 decision the Supreme Court agreed with Wong, and said he was a citizen of the United States by virtue of being born here. And it seems to me there’s a made-for-television movie script in there somewhere.
Anyway, as I read about the Wong decision I realized that the dissenting argument in the Wong case is exactly the same argument being made today by Will and the Republican lawmakers.
The dissent was based on an interpretation of the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” Will and the two SCOTUS dissenters (John Harlan and Melville Fuller) say this phrase means “and not subject to any foreign power.” In their dissent of Wong, Harlan and Fuller point out that native Americans were (at the time) not citizens of the U.S. because the Civil Rights Act of 1866 had given citizenship to “all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed.”
This act became law just two months before the 14th Amendment was proposed. So, the argument is, this wording gives us insight into where lawmakers’ heads were at the time. And thus, if the parents are subjects of a foreign power, then their baby born in the U.S. is not eligible for citizenship. This was the dissenting opinion in Wong in 1898, and Will repeated this same argument in his Washington Post column. Will doesn’t bother discussing that pesky Wong majority opinion, however.
Will argues further,
What was this [the jurisdiction phrase] intended or understood to mean by those who wrote it in 1866 and ratified it in 1868? The authors and ratifiers could not have intended birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants because in 1868 there were and never had been any illegal immigrants because no law ever had restricted immigration.
As far as I know, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first attempt to render any sort of immigration illegal, and it didn’t become law until 1882. Congress had passed an earlier version of the exclusion act in 1878, but this was vetoed by President Hayes. But the Wong majority decision says plainly that an act of Congress making Chinese immigration illegal, and denying citizenship status to ethnic Chinese, did not override the clear language of the 14th Amendment.
So, whether Will and the Republican lawmakers like it or not, SCOTUS already nixed their argument.
The majority opinion in Wong is based partly on English common law, which said that babies born in England are English, with the exception of the children of diplomats and children born to hostile forces occupying English territory.
In addition, at the time native American tribes were not considered subject to U.S. jurisdiction and were therefore not citizens. Another case decided in 1884 (Elk v. Wilkins, 112 U.S. 94) had declared that a native American who left his tribe and went to live in a white community didn’t automatically get citizenship, although he could be considered a citizen if he went through whatever naturalization process existed at the time and paid taxes.
Will leans heavily on the example of non-citizen native Americans to argue that the 14th Amendment was not intended to confer citizenship to babies of foreigners who happened to be in the U.S. at the time. But the Elk decision (which Will doesn’t mention, either) did not consider Indian tribes to be foreign states. A tribe was an alien political entity which Congress dealt with through treaties, but not the same thing as a foreign nation.
So, it seems to me the Wong decision — the majority opinion, anyway — more closely speaks to the circumstance of babies born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants than does the Elk decision. And I think I just blew by nerd blogging quotient for the day.
Update: Read more about Wong Kim Ark in “The Progeny of Citizen Wong.”
And thank goodness for archives.