Trimming a Little Fat Off the Fourteenth Amendment

08/10/2010 12:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's an election year, and so we're accustomed to hearing typical hyperbole from politicians.  But even the most jaded observers of our politics were troubled by the latest head-scratcher from Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).  The Senate Minority Leader suggested, without irony or humor, that Congress "ought to take a look at" eliminating the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of citizenship to every natural-born American.  He, and others in the punditsphere, believe that the Fourteenth Amendment is a problem because illegal immigrants come to this country unlawfully and then have children who are American citizens. 

A generation ago, it would have been hard to imagine writing an op-ed defending the Fourteenth Amendment.  But that's how polarized and demagogic our politics have become.  The Constitution, we're told, isn't human history's finest effort to codify and honor the inalienable rights of persons; it's a loophole for illegal immigrants.  And the Fourteenth Amendment?  It's not the product of this nation's epic war to end slavery and enfranchise African Americans; it's just another political football that we can toss around to rile up votes and dollars on the margins. 

We shouldn't be so cavalier. It dishonors our Constitution and our politics.

It's especially ironic that leading Republicans need this reminder, for it was another generation of Republicans that enacted the Fourteenth Amendment.  We had a war about this very question--who is an American?  Our answer was, and remains, elegantly simple:  any person born in America is an American.  Generations before the Civil War, our forefather fled the caste-like European system that uplifted people of "noble birth" and disenfranchised the rest of us.  They crossed an ocean, fought a king, and died for a nation where your rights don't depend on your parents' lineage.  Catholic or Protestant, sons and daughters of fishermen or noblemen, born to parents from many nations--they called themselves, and each other, Americans.  The suggestion that we do any less today dishonors them and us.

Senator McConnell was right, though, that we need immigration reform in America.  But thrusting a stake in the Fourteenth Amendment won't solve that problem.  Extreme proposals like this are better designed for grabbing headlines, riling up the base, and driving contributions to one's party.  But they're costing us a chance to actually solve problems.  Honest dialogue about solutions isn't possible in an environment like this.  Bipartisanship, compromise, and finding common ground aren't possible.  We need to dial it back if we're going to have a chance to solve the big problems facing us, including illegal immigration.  So, here's a modest proposal: Let's have a serious discussion that doesn't include eliminating entire sections of our Constitution.  We'll each put forward our best ideas, without malignant agenda, we'll debate, and whoever convinces the majority of folks on the merit of their ideas, wins.  We may actually solve the problem, which is what people deserve, and we'll spare our Constitution an unneeded trim.