Two weeks ago, Senators Jon Kyl and Lindsey Graham became the highest-ranking Republican officials to lend their voices to what has become an increasingly loud and disturbing refrain on the Right -- the call to repeal the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joined the clamor, calling for hearings to evaluate the possibility of repeal. Since then, these Republican leaders have back-tracked and equivocated. But the core of their message remains clear.
With this latest rallying cry, the Republican Party has disowned one of the greatest steps forward in American history, declared its disinterest in real solutions to the crises we now face, and set itself up as an impediment to future progress.
By granting the full and irrevocable rights of citizenship to former slaves and their children, the 14th Amendment began to right the wrongs of the most shameful chapter in our history. But it also fulfilled the basic purpose of a constitutional amendment--it codified an American value, to be applied to new generations and new circumstances.
Some on the Right have argued that the Citizenship Clause is an outdated administrative provision intended only to be applied to the circumstances of 1868. In fact, the clause was integral to the 14th Amendment's promise to extend the protections of the Bill of Rights to all Americans--and it was intended as a guarantee that the rights of citizenship would not be taken away from members of future generations on the grounds of animus or political expedience.
Elizabeth Wydra, Chief Counsel of the Constitutional Accountability Center, studied the issue extensively last year and concluded that the writers of the 14th Amendment "wisely placed the conditions for automatic citizenship beyond the prejudices and politics of the day, intending to establish 'a constitutional right that cannot be wrested from any class of citizens, or from the citizens of any State by mere legislation.'"
Until recently, the idea of repealing part of the 14th Amendment in order to deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants was embraced only by the most radical on the Right. Former Rep. Tom Tancredo in 2007 went so far as to claim that the 14th Amendment never actually guaranteed citizenship to children of illegal immigrants (an idea disproved by Supreme Court precedent and the words of the document itself). More recently, Arizona state senator Russell Pearce, the architect of the state's new draconian anti-immigrant law, agreed, accusing illegal immigrants of "hijacking" the 14th Amendment and using it as a "wedge."
Tancredo and Pearce represent the extreme end of the Republican Party -- the tip of the Right Wing most interested in reactionary posturing on immigration reform and least interested in real solutions. That the Republican leadership is now embracing their radical agenda is as disturbing as it is revealing. Like the GOP's recent attacks on the record of Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, this assault on the 14th Amendment is a willful attempt to revise American history and values in the name of political expedience. I would remind Republican senators what they never tire of reminding the rest of us--that to ignore the history and values on which our laws are based is irresponsible, and it's dangerous.