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Blast from the past

As a nation of immigrants, the United States has long held that people born on U.S. soil become citizens — with the notable exception of the period when slavery was legal. But Californians are no strangers to efforts to change the U.S. Constitution to strip birthright citizenship for children of noncitizens. These proposals come and go with waves of anti-immigration.

The latest bid, just in time for midterm elections, is being launched by several members of the U.S. Senate and House. California Republican congressmen Dan Lungren and Tom McClintock have long advocated denial of birthright citizenship to native-born persons unless the mother or father is a citizen.

U.S. Sen. James D. Phelan of California (serving from 1915 to 1921) was a pioneer in such efforts, and today's members of Congress are his heirs.

Phelan supported laws that prohibited Chinese, Japanese and other Asian immigrants from becoming naturalized U.S. citizens. But he saw it as a giant loophole that their children born on U.S. soil were citizens: "As these children become of age they are full-fledged American citizens and can own land and enjoy elective franchise and destroy our ideals and institutions."

Phelan acknowledged that "from the beginning of the Republic children born upon the soil are ipso facto citizens." So he proposed to change birthright citizenship in the U.S. Constitution with a 1920 amendment. He ran during the 1920 election on the slogan: "Stop the SILENT INVASION." In the end, Phelan was defeated, so that 1920 amendment went nowhere.

That shameful era thankfully passed. But a new one is upon us.

There's a big roadblock, fortunately. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a strong opinion in 1898 affirming birthright citizenship as a constitutional right.

That case involved a Californian of Chinese descent. Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco in 1873 and had never lived anywhere else. His parents were Chinese immigrants, noncitizens. When he visited China at age 21, U.S. officials attempted to deny his return on the grounds that he was not a citizen.

The Supreme Court, however, affirmed his birthright citizenship. The court noted the pre-Civil War history of U.S. citizenship: "The child of an alien, if born in the country, is as much a citizen as the natural-born child of a citizen."

Further, the court ruled that the post-Civil War 14th Amendment (1868), laid the issue to rest. It reads: "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."

The court was crystal clear on this: "To hold that the 14th Amendment of the Constitution excludes from citizenship the children, born in the United States, of citizens or subjects of other countries would be to deny citizenship to thousands of persons of English, Scotch, Irish, German or other European parentage who have always been considered and treated as citizens of the United States."

Think of how many grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents of today's U.S. citizens would have had to apply for citizenship if birthright citizenship was limited only to children with a citizen parent.

Old Sen. Phelan undoubtedly would warm to this new effort. But calmer heads should prevail and reject, again, pernicious efforts to deny birthright citizenship to children born on U.S. soil.