Having spent the past few weeks absurdly hyping the “caravan” of Central American migrants into a national emergency, President Donald Trump is rolling out a new stunt: He’s claiming he intends to sign an executive order ending birthright citizenship.
Trump said he plans to end the 14th Amendment’s guarantee that all persons born in the United States are automatically citizens. Ending birthright citizenship is something Trump floated during the campaign as part of his immigration agenda, arguing that immigrants here illegally are crossing the border to drop babies on our soil, thus making them citizens.
Trump is now saying he can do this via executive order. “It was always told to me that you needed a constitutional amendment. Guess what? You don’t,” Trump told Axios, a news website. “You can definitely do it with an act of Congress. But now they’re saying I can do it just with an executive order.”
“We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in, has a baby, and that baby is essentially a citizen of the United States for 85 years with all of those benefits,” Trump added, concluding: “It’s in the process. It’ll happen.”
No, it won’t happen.
The idea of ending birthright citizenship has been a dream of restrictionists. It was recently floated by former Trump adviser Michael Anton, the creator of the “Flight 93 Election” imagery, which posited that immigration poses an existential demographic emergency to the United States and that those who favor it are carrying out a form of assisted civilizational suicide.
Ending birthright citizenship, in this narrative, will slow this march toward the cliff. To oversimplify, the idea that this can be undone by executive order turns on a rather creative interpretation of an 1890s Supreme Court decision. That decision interpreted the 14th Amendment — which holds that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens” — to apply to, well, all persons born in the United States. Restrictionists claim this does not apply to the children of immigrants here illegally, because they aren’t “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States.
The argument is absurd — those immigrants are subject to U.S. jurisdiction, and denying their children citizenship would be unconstitutional. But Trump could theoretically direct federal agencies to stop treating the children of non-citizens as citizens. This would be challenged, and the court would then “clarify” whether birthright citizenship applies to the children of immigrants here illegally.
This comes even as Trump’s race-baiting and incitement of hate seriously damage the country. Trump has fearmongered about destitute migrants hundreds of miles away, while claiming “globalists” are orchestrating their exodus, a white nationalist trope that imagines a conspiracy to infest and weaken the “real” American people.
Trump has now dispatched more than 5,000 troops to the border, thus employing our military to do a set piece in his agitprop campaign to create the false impression of a national emergency. Republicans have joined in — many running ads painting immigrants as criminal invaders. Making this even worse, as the New Republic’s Brian Beutler points out, back when Republicans tried to stop Trump’s rise, they warned that his dehumanization of immigrants and minorities could have horrific real-world consequences. Now that this has happened, Republicans have not backed off in amplifying Trump’s demagoguery.
Now, Trump is moving to deny citizenship to the children of immigrants here illegally, an obvious bid to further feed this climate of xenophobia and hate. And, of course, the end goal of fomenting all this hysteria is to hold Congress, precisely to further Republicans’ regressive, deeply unpopular agenda on both those fronts — and to protect Trump from the accountability a Democratic Congress would bring.
Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog for The Washington Post.