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Don't mess with the Constitution

Editorial

There is a legal way to stop granting citizenship by birth: an amendment

The rising tide of anti-immigrant fervor has a new target: the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. That's the one that says if you're born in the United States, you're a citizen, even if your parents are not.

This country has granted citizenship that way since 1868. A die-hard group of U.S. representatives wants to change that, but without going through the intentionally difficult task of amending the Constitution.

So far, the more than 90 supporters have been unable to convince the Republican House leadership to allow a vote on their proposal. We urge House GOP leaders to stand their ground.

Supporters of this change make some interesting arguments, none of which is convincing.

First, there is the anchor baby argument. Illegal immigrants intentionally come here, the argument goes, in order to give birth to a new U.S. citizen who can later petition to make his or her parents permanent residents, as well as other relatives back home.

The problem with this argument is that word later. A person granted citizenship by birth cannot sponsor anyone else until age 18, and the process can then take several more years to complete.

— Most immigrants come here in search of work and a better life than they can achieve in their native countries. The idea that many of them come just to give birth to U.S. citizens who can help them become legal residents two decades from now is far-fetched; so is the idea that removing the constitutional guarantee would stop them from coming.

Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, told the Los Angeles Times, I have never met a poor person who has his wife walk across the desert at eight months pregnant so they can wait 21 years to be sponsored by their child.

Then there is the argument that the 14th Amendment means something other than what it says: 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.

This argument suggests that subject to the jurisdiction thereof was not intended to apply to the babies of immigrants who are here illegally.

That may be, but it's not up to Congress to decide that. It's up to the courts. We will leave for another time the question of whether reinterpreting the 14th Amendment would amount to judicial activism.

Finally, the supporters of this dubious exercise point to the rest of the world and say that few wealthy nations other than the U.S. allow birthright citizenship. That might be because one of this country's defining characteristics is that it is a nation of immigrants.

The problem of illegal immigration is complex, as are the solutions to it. A sweeping bill that would enact a number of controversial anti-immigration policies has already passed the House.

Lawmakers should focus on debating those laws they have the power to enact. If they want to tamper with the Constitution, they should amend it, not attempt an end run around it.