Candidates challenge Constitution — “birthright” babies, religious test

Donald Trump failed to correct a questioner who said President Obama is a Muslim and not an American. Ben Carson opposes a Muslim being president.

At least five conservative Republican candidates oppose allowing children born in the United States of foreign parents to be citizens. These are “birthright” babies or, more critically, “anchor babies,” suggesting they are born here mainly to give their parents a way of following them into citizenship.

These views raise both matters of fact and reveal a failure to accept the plain language of the Constitution.

Obama is an American and is not a Muslim. After the offensive comment, Trump said he would not defend the president, failing to show he was a leader and not merely a candidate exploiting a falsehood.

As for religion, being a Muslim or any other religion or none at all cannot be a block to public office. Article 6 of the Constitution says, “no religious test shall ever be required” to hold office.

To deal with citizenship as some GOP candidates would like, means abandoning the Constitution, as supported in an 1898 decision of the Supreme Court.

From the outset, all born in the U.S. were considered citizens, except for African Americans and Indians. In the infamous 1856 Dred Scott decision, the Court said that African Americans, even those who were free, could not be citizens.

Following the Civil War, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted, saying: “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.” That seems clear.

Today’s opponents of allowing the children of illegal immigrants to be citizens say the “born” part of the Amendment was only meant to apply to African Americans and not to Hispanics or others. They claim it is being stretched beyond the intention of the people who drafted the Amendment.

The facts don’t support that view. In the congressional debates on citizenship right after the Civil War, some senators raised the question of whether the new rules would authorize including the “children of Chinese and Gypsies born in this country.” The answer was citizenship would include them and that was the intent.

In the late 19th Century, while European immigrants poured into the country, Congress blocked any additional Chinese immigrants. In its 1898 decision, the Supreme Court said Chinese children born in the U.S. were subject to American jurisdiction and thus citizens, even if their parents were not.

One of the two Court dissenters admitted his bias. Chinese were “a race utterly foreign to us and never will assimilate with us,” he said. His opposition was less legal than cultural, and that may be today’s message as well. Diversity is changing the country, and some people are bound not to like the change.

At least some Republicans oppose a path to permanent residence for a largely Hispanic population composed of undocumented or illegal immigrants. Concerned that assimilating as many as 11 million people already here will change the country or simply believing lawbreakers should not be rewarded, they want these immigrants deported.

Thanks their opposition, Congress has be unable to adopt an immigration policy. In the absence of action, the Obama administration, while running what is likely the largest American deportation program ever, has tried to halt the break-up of families.

Obama angers his opponents, because he has extended protection to the immigrant parents of citizens. His critics question whether he has the authority to take such action, accomplished by giving their possible removal a low deportation priority. Federal courts will decide that question.

Some advocates of deporting all illegal immigrants believe their children, though born in the U.S., should not be allowed to stay and should leave with them. The problem is their American citizenship. But who would take care of the children if they were left behind?

There are a number of obviously wrong answers to these issues. The children cannot be denied citizenship without amending the Constitution. Millions of people cannot be deported. The president’s move cannot become a permanent substitute for congressional action.

The answer is a comprehensive new immigration policy. Members of Congress should act and take the risks that go with leadership. That’s highly unlikely with national elections not far off.

The U.S. has benefited from immigration, the cause of great economic growth. More workers and more customers would help the economy now, but only if Americans and their leaders, themselves descendents of immigrants, will accept the continued assimilation of the foreign born.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.