Donald Trump offered a bold, new idea to curb the arrival of undocumented immigrants to the United States: Strike down part of the 14th Amendment. The only problem is that the idea is not new, and it is only bold in how racially insensitive it is.
This is just the latest attempt in an ongoing effort to reduce the amount of civil rights protections available to minorities, especially blacks and Hispanics. It uses coded language and statutory parlor tricks to convey one simple premise that is as old as the country: People of color need to earn their citizenship, but everyone else is freely granted it as a basic right.
Trump’s immigration plan was recently posted to his campaign website, and it states his intention to “end birthright citizenship” because it is “the biggest magnet for illegal immigration.” This plan is not just Trump being Trump—GOP presidential candidates Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, Chris Christie, Rand Paul and Bobby Jindal all support this approach.
Birthright citizenship is the constitutional principle that any person who’s born on American soil is automatically a citizen of the United States. It’s granted by the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment, which states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”
These Republican presidential candidates say they are concerned about undocumented immigrants who purposely sneak into the United States just to give birth to a child on American soil. These children, sometimes called “anchor babies,” are officially U.S. citizens, and many Republicans say they believe undocumented immigrants are exploiting their child’s citizenship to stay in America illegally.
There is no question that the immigration system is badly in need of reform. But the plan to weaken the 14th Amendment, which has been suggested by both Democratic and Republican elected officials in the past, sounds an awful lot like a racist dog whistle, summoning the oppression from the slavery and Reconstruction eras that denied black Americans the right to citizenship.
In the infamous Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court ruled that black people were not citizens, and that blacks were “altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Decades earlier, at the founding of our country, the states agreed that enslaved black people would only count as three-fifths of a person. So, not only were black people not citizens, but we weren’t even considered to be full persons.
After the Civil War, the 14th Amendment was written to grant citizenship to the freed slaves, their descendants and anyone born on U.S. soil. But not long after, segregation and Jim Crow laws were put in place and confirmed, once again, by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the basic rights of citizenship—things such as voting, equal protection under the law and freedom of expression and worship—were finally extended to black people.
But even today, as voting rights are under attack and the Black Lives Matter movement fights for justice, black Americans are reminded of the subtle implications that we still have to earn our citizenship. We are told that if we are just respectable, work twice as hard, and stop looking for help and handouts, that perhaps, with a little patience, we will be treated like Americans, too. Meanwhile, voter-identification laws and immigration reform are slowly undermining the ability of people of color to fully experience American citizenship.
Fortunately, amending the Constitution to end birthright citizenship is very unlikely. Though it is possible to pass legislation that would interpret the 14th Amendment differently and effectively end the practice, it would be difficult unless Republicans controlled the White House and held a filibuster-proof majority in Congress. And even if this were to happen, it is likely that the Supreme Court would strike down any such legislation to end birthright citizenship.
But in the short term, Republicans are driving yet another wedge between the party and minority voters. We’ve seen this before. When 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act, black voters vacated the party and have voted in overwhelming numbers for Democratic candidates ever since. If Republicans look to change the 14th Amendment, they would similarly push Hispanic voters into the Democratic Party. Based on the demographic shifts in the nation, such a move would effectively kill the Republican Party.
The passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 was led by President Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party in honor of his memory. Today’s Republican Party, led by the racially insensitive politics of some of its members, is doing a good job of tarnishing that legacy.
Trump and the rest of the Republican field are attempting to come across as tough on undocumented immigration to appeal to the party’s base. But what they are really communicating is the tired idea that American citizenship for people of color should be a little more difficult.
Theodore R. Johnson III is a former White House fellow. His writing focuses on race, society and politics. Follow him on Twitter.