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SPLC to U.S. Senate: Don’t mess with birthright citizenship

Here’s why we urged U.S. senators to reject legislation that would restrict the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship.

Today, we urged members of the U.S. Senate to reject an amendment, proposed by Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, to the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015.

Here’s why:

The ostensible purpose of the Vitter amendment is to address the phenomenon of  “birth tourism.” But, putting aside the obvious unconstitutionality of the proposal, there are surely ways to address that phenomenon without resorting to the wildly disproportionate, draconian solution of restricting the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship. From the start, that guarantee was intended to protect the children of those who have come here to work hard and contribute to our society.  We should not make such children outcasts now.

During the 1866 debate on the 14th Amendment, Sen. Edgar Cowan of Pennsylvania raged against the idea of children of Chinese immigrants and Gypsies becoming citizens by virtue of being born here. He argued that citizenship should be preserved for “people of my own blood and lineage, people of the same religion, people of the same beliefs and traditions.” He warned against “a flood of immigration of the Mongol race” and of the country being “invaded,” not just by Gypsies – “trespassers” and “swindlers,” in Cowan’s view – but by “people from Borneo, man-eaters or cannibals, if you please.”

Sen. John Conness of California rose in defense of the Amendment.  He conceded that “it may be very good capital in an electioneering campaign to declaim against the Chinese.” But he pointed out that they were an “industrious people … now passing from mining into other branches of industry,” including farming and the “building of the Pacific railroad.” Their children and those of Gypsies born in this country should be “regarded as citizens of the United States,” he said. No person “claiming to have a high humanity,” he argued, could take a contrary position.

Sen. Conness carried the day. Congress voted to propose the 14th Amendment with its birthright citizenship guarantee in the summer of 1866, and the requisite number of states ratified it two years later. There is no good reason to rip the guarantee from our Constitution now. We urged senators to demonstrate their “high humanity” by rejecting the Vitter amendment.