Washington Matters


Immigration Brings out Worst in All

Mark Willen

Will the shrill campaign rhetoric kill chances for a compromise after the election? The U.S. can’t afford to let that happen.



So now we have a new sideshow to divert attention from the real immigration problems that need our attention. Instead of discussing how to stop illegal entries, how to deal with the illegals already in the U.S. and how to ensure a labor force for the rest of the century, we’re fighting over the rights of newborns.

I’m referring, of course, to the drive to rewrite the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified in 1868 to ensure that no state would deny freed slaves the rights of citizenship. The Amendment 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.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of the more thoughtful members of Congress and a longtime advocate of comprehensive immigration reform, set off the firestorm by suggesting that it was time to review and reconsider the notion of birthright citizenship, saying it encouraged illegal immigration. “They come here to drop a child,” he said, a rather inartful description offered to Fox News last month. The idea was quickly endorsed by other Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio.

Republicans also pounced on a study last week by Pew Research. After analyzing census data, Pew concluded that 1 of every 12 children born in the U.S. in 2008 had at least one parent who was in the U.S. illegally. More than 80% of the mothers had been in the U.S. for at least one year, and more than half had been here five years. Pew didn’t try to say how many of the newborns had at least one legal parent, which raises the question of how they would be treated -- or how the child of a single mother who couldn’t prove her partner’s legal status would be regarded.

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Various (and highly dubious) technical arguments are used to question whether the 14th Amendment even applies to the children of illegal immigrants born in the U.S. Critics say the phrase “under the jurisdiction thereof” means the amendment doesn’t apply because illegal immigrants aren’t under U.S. jurisdiction. Historians say the phrase was meant to exclude the children of diplomats, and anyway, the whole idea of suggesting illegal immigrants are not under U.S. jurisdiction causes way more problems than it solves. The other common argument is that the Amendment couldn’t have been intended to apply to the children of illegal immigrants because there were no restrictions on immigration in 1868. I guess they feel it’s okay to reinterpret the Constitution based on the prevailing social conditions.

There is no chance, of course, that enough support can be mustered to get a repeal of the Amendment through Congress, and those advocating it know that. But they have their eye on November. It’s another sure way to rouse the Republican base and put Democrats on the spot.

Not that Democrats are any better. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) keeps pushing immigration reform onto the Senate agenda this year, knowing full well it can’t pass in this political climate. He and his fellow Democrats are far more interested in making sure Hispanics, the fastest growing segment of the voting population, have a reason to go to the polls and vote for Democrats. It’s hardly a coincidence that Reid is locked in a tight race for reelection in Nevada, where 15% of registered voters are Latino.

It goes almost without saying that illegal immigration is a very serious problem and that a solution requires our best bipartisan efforts -- something we’re a long way from getting. The Bush and Obama administrations have beefed up border controls, and illegal crossings are down, though not to zero (and probably never will be). Obama has toughened up sanctions on those employers who knowingly hire illegals, and his administration has deported hundreds of thousands of illegals, though it has made an exception for students.

These efforts aren’t sufficient, but they aren’t minimalist, either. Those who are adamant about sealing the border completely -- or on deporting the 11 million illegals in the U.S. -- are insisting on impossible steps. To try either would fail, and we’d break the bank and draw resources from more important needs in the process.

The issue cries out for compassion and compromise, both of which are in short supply -- and obviously there’s no chance for anything but shrill rhetoric until after the election. Then Democrats and their allies need to recognize the need to do more to crack down, and Republicans and their allies need to get more realistic about dealing with the illegal immigrants already here. And businesses, which may not need the labor now but will eventually, ought to think seriously about their role. They’re in the best position to bring the two sides to the bargaining table.



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