November 20, 2018

The Case Against Birthright Citizenship

“President Trump accomplished something remarkable this week: He sent his harshest critics and closest allies running to the Constitution. In an interview about immigration, the president argued that the “ridiculous” policy of birthright citizenship has to end—and that he can do it through an executive order.

In response, Democrats and Republicans alike have raised the banner of the 14th Amendment: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the States wherein they reside.” They claim this means anyone born in the U.S. has a constitutional right to citizenship. But a closer look at the language and history shows this is not the Constitution’s mandate and should never have become national policy.

The crucial phrase is “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” As originally understood when Congress proposed the amendment in 1866, that referred not merely to the obligation of following U.S. laws but also, and more important, to full political allegiance. According to Lyman Trumbull—who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a co-author of the 14th Amendment—being “subject to the complete jurisdiction of the United States” meant “not owing allegiance to anybody else.”

That reading is supported by the 1866 Civil Rights Act, also written by Trumbull, which Congress passed over President Andrew Johnson’s veto before proposing the 14th Amendment. The Supreme Court endorsed this reading in the Slaughter-House Cases (1872) and Elk v. Wilkins (1884).”

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