08.12.10

A GOP Blunder on Immigration

Republicans are making a tactical mistake, and betraying their history, by calling for the elimination of the automatic right of American-born children to citizenship. Mark McKinnon takes his party to task.

Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano rejected on Friday Republican calls to amend the 14th Amendment so that the children of illegal immigrants would be denied American citizenship. “Any talk of amending the Constitution is just wrong,” she said in a White House press briefing. Republicans like House Minority Leader John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have said Congress should look into changing the Constitution.

The Daily Beast's Mark McKinnon says Republicans are making a tactical mistake, and betraying their history, by calling for the elimination of the automatic right of American-born children to citizenship.

Some weeks it's tough to be a Republican.  

I love Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). I count on him to resist the sirens of extremism constantly luring him toward the rocks of demagoguery. So I was surprised and disappointed to see him calling for a narrowed definition of birthright citizenship, now granted to all who are born here by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.  

Has history been forgotten?  

We were the party that welcomed people to America. Now some are sending the signal, “You’re not wanted here. Go home.”

Republicans freed the slaves. Congressional Republicans passed the 13th Amendment despite nearly unanimous opposition by Democrats. And, Republicans granted citizenship to freed slaves and their children in the 14th Amendment, against the total resistance of congressional Democrats.  

We were the party that welcomed people to America. Now some are sending the signal, "You're not wanted here. Go home."  

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Two recent Republican presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, embraced immigrants. Reagan granted amnesty to nearly 3 million. And Bush promoted comprehensive legislation creating pathways to citizenship for immigrants already in this country. His message: “Immigration is not a problem to be solved, it is the sign of a successful nation.” It was this kind of compassionate conservatism that drew me to join the ranks of the GOP 15 years ago.  

Republicans are now throwing that heritage of liberty out the door to score cheap political points. I'd like to give my friends the benefit of the doubt and believe their motives are pure, but that's hard to do when it's a practical impossibility that the 14th Amendment can be changed.  

Sen. Graham lit the long fuse with comments last month in an interview with Fox News: “We should change our Constitution and say if you come here illegally and you have a child, that child's automatically not a citizen.”

A call for hearings was echoed by both Arizona senators, Jon Kyl (R) and John McCain (R), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), who, after being badgered on Meet the Press, said: “To provide an incentive for illegal immigrants to come here so that their children can be U.S. citizens does, in fact, draw more people to our country. I do think that it's time for us to secure our borders and enforce the law, and allow this conversation about the 14th Amendment to continue… Listen, I think it's worth considering.”

I‘m pleasantly surprised to find myself in agreement with former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (R). He is against changing the 14th Amendment to remove birthright citizenship. “Let me tell you what I would favor. I would favor having controlled borders. But that's where the federal government has miserably and hopelessly failed us.”  

Michael Gerson’s assessment of Graham’s thinking is right on target: “He has either taken leave of his senses or of his principles. Neither is unknown in Washington... revoking birthright citizenship would turn hundreds of thousands of infants into ‘criminals’—arriving, not across a border, but crying in a hospital.”

Voters, especially in border states like Arizona and Texas, are rightfully frustrated by the federal government’s inability and disinterest in protecting our borders. Punishing newborns is not the answer. Addressing the modern-day slavery of illegal immigration is the right cause.  

And though the media is trying to gin up outrage, Republican voters are not going to fall for what amounts to little more than posturing for political gain. Improving our overall approach to immigration is the higher calling.  

From President Reagan’s farewell address to the nation: “I've spoken of the shining city all my political life… in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and heart to get here."  

Defending birthright citizenship for all who are born here is not about winning over the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population. Senate candidate Marco Rubio (R-FL) is right on why the Republican vision already appeals to hard-working immigrants. It’s all about “ economic empowerment, the desire to leave their children better off than themselves.”

Defending birthright citizenship is about being on the right side of liberty. The 14th Amendment is a great legacy of the Republican Party. It is a shame and an embarrassment that some in the GOP now want to amend it for starkly political reasons.  

As a country, we instead need to have some serious adult conversations about fixing the economy and stopping the hemorrhaging deficit—or we will have no history to pass on to anyone’s children.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.