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Debate: Is Donald Trump right about birthright citizenship?

Republican presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump speaks with

Republican presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump speaks with reporters after arriving at the Iowa State Fair on August 15, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Aaron P. Bernstein

For good or for ill, Republican presidential frontrunner and reality television star Donald Trump has made the subject of birthright citizenship a national issue.

Granting citizenship to anyone born on American soil, regardless of their parents' legal status, has long been the norm in the United States under the 14th Amendment. But Trump and other Republican candidates argue that birthright citizenship has led to gross abuses, such as the rise of "birth tourism." Is birthright citizenship an idea whose time has passed? Or a tradition to be preserved? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.

BEN BOYCHUK: Let's put it this way: Donald Trump may be an execrable demagogue, but he isn't wrong about birthright citizenship.

Birthright citizenship - an essentially medieval idea - has no place in a republic built on the consent of the governed. Citizenship should be about more than just showing up. And an accident of birth ought not be the ultimate trump card in American law.

Trump being Trump, the liberal-left - particularly editorialists and cable TV pundits - have dismissed the GOP frontrunner's call to abolish birthright citizenship as extreme, bigoted and, incidentally, "unconstitutional." Well, maybe not. The claim hinges on the language of the 14th Amendment, which was passed and ratified after the Civil War to ensure that freed slaves would have the benefits of citizenship. 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." "Subject to the jurisdiction thereof" is wide-open to interpretation. But think about it this way: If citizenship were simply a matter of birth on U.S. soil, why bother including that jurisdiction clause in the first place? Because the framers of the amendment meant America's "whole jurisdiction" and clearly had exceptions in mind: children of foreign diplomats and "Indians not taxed," for example. In other words: people whose loyalty and allegiance belonged not to the United States, and nowhere else. Surely illegal immigrants, whatever their intentions or dreams of a better life, would fall squarely under that category.

Citizenship is not a right so much as a privilege. As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1884, "no one can become a citizen of a nation without its consent." So it hardly makes sense that the children of people who entered the country illegally - without the consent of the host country - should have citizenship conferred automatically.

Yet the prevailing understanding of the 14th Amendment holds precisely that. The prevailing view is wrong.

Forget the blowhard messenger and focus on the message. Every country in the world gets to say who enters, who may stay and who qualifies for the privilege of citizenship. Birthright citizenship turns consent on its head, and should be ended.

JOEL MATHIS Guess who's a beneficiary of birthright citizenship? You.

That's right. If you're an American citizen - and you're not a Native American or a first-generation immigrant - it's a virtual certainty you are a citizen of this nation, in large part because you were born here. Or your parents were. Or your grandparents. Somewhere in your family history exists the first relative who was born on American soil, and in the grand scheme of things - ours is a young country - that arrival was probably pretty recent.

My conservative colleague Ben says "every country in the world gets a say who enters," and he's absolutely right on that count - but that comment treats America like it's any other country. Not so. Our history is different, our ideals our different, and together the two combine to give us different moral obligations to those who seeking to live and work alongside us.

The United States is a nation of immigrants after all, and that's not just a nice sentiment: It's literally true that most of us who aren't immigrants are descended from somebody who came here from Europe or Asia or Africa. Why is your family owed that citizenship but future arrivals not? What is the grand principle that justifies such a departure from history and custom? Sorry to say, this is exactly the kind of an argument a conservative should be making. They're the ones who make arguments about the unintended consequences of making huge shifts away from American custom. They're the ones who argue in favor of fealty to the Constitution. These are often the wisest, most beneficial arguments that conservatives bring to any big political argument. Bring immigrants into the mix, though, and suddenly those principles are scattered to the wind. Suddenly they become radicals.

The good news for liberals? If Trump keeps this up, Democrats are going to have an easy time defending the White House in 2016. Latino voters - citizens - won't vote for a Republican Party that's increasingly chasing Trump's lead on the issue.

Keeping birthright citizenship is more than just fair and honorable; it's also smart politics.

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@city-journal.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis (joelmmathis@gmail.com) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine.

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