What’s Really Behind The GOP Rhetoric Against Birthright Citizenship

Is the GOP really serious about changing the citizenship rules in the 14th Amendment ? Not likely.

In an interview with National Review’s Dan Foster, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham talks about why he’s pushing for hearings on altering the 14th Amendment to exclude birthright citizenship:

FOSTER: Isn’t a bit of this, frankly, strategic? Aren’t you looking for ways to bring conservatives on board with the more comprehensive immigration reform that you favor? Is that fair to say?

GRAHAM: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that I need to go home to South Carolina and say: listen, I know we’re all upset that we have 12-14 million people illegally.  I’m going to have to be practical.  We’re not going to deport or jail 12-14 million people.  A practical solution is not awarding this citizenship on day one, but to allow them to stay here on our terms, learn our language, pay a fine, hold a job, and apply for citizenship through the legal process by getting in the back of the legal line.

That to me is a practical solution. But, I have to be able to say, as part of doing that, we looked at all the incentives that led to the 12-13 million coming, and we changed them.  That we did secure our border, unlike any other time in the past, that we now have laws that make it possible to verify employment; we now have a temporary worker program that will allow people to come here and work on our terms temporarily, and help our employers with labor when they can’t find American labor.  I have to be able to say that, because I think most Americans are willing to clean this mess up.  They’re not willing to perpetuate it.


FOSTER: If you do have to go the amendment route, that’s a pretty uphill battle.

GRAHAM:  It would be, but I think America is ready to embrace solutions, and we’re ready to do the hard thing.  I don’t think it’d be hard to get three-fourths of the states to ratify the amendment.  And the amendment would be a simple concept.  It would say: Congress shall have the authority to regulate birth-right citizenship.  It would be prospectively applied and we would then write statutes.  You would not put a statute in the fourteenth amendment.  The debate about how to do that would go through the normal legislative process.  I think something like that would have a very good chance of being ratified in 34 states because it makes so much sense.

Graham is being entirely facetious here, I think. In reality, it is incredibly difficult to amend the Constitution. Not only does Article V require the consent of 3/4 of the states, it also requires a 2/3 vote in each House of Congress. The number of Amendments that have been proposed but not ratified throughout the past 221 years far outnumbers the 27 that have actually become part of the Constitution. The last time the Constitution was successful amended in the modern era was in 1971 when the 26th Amendment, which gave 18 year-olds the right to vote, was ratified within seven months after it had been passed by Congress. Since then, several amendments, including the Equal Rights Amendment, an amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision declaring flag burning to be protected speech, a Human Life Amendment, and a Balanced Budget Amendment.

There have even been amendments proposed that would accomplish exactly what Graham and other Republicans are talking about now. In 2003, Congressman Mark Foley introduced a proposed Constitutional Amendment that would have said that citizenship only attaches on birth if the mother or father is a citizen or legal resident alien. In a year when Republicans controlled the House the bill had only 16 co-sponsors and it died in Committee. While the political interest in immigration is no doubt more keen today than it was seven years ago, it is hard to believe that Graham and the rest of the GOP would really be able to must the 67 votes in the Senate and 290 votes in the House — not to mention the approval of 38 states — needed to fundamentally alter one of the most important amendments to the Constitution.

So, what’s really going on here ?

Honestly, I think emphasizing birthright citizenship like this, and possibly even holding hearings in the unlikely event that the GOP retakes the Senate in November, is a way for Graham and the rest of the GOP to throw a bone to conservatives on the issue of immigration reform. Even if it goes nowhere, which it won’t, they can turn to their base and say See ? We tried to do something but we just couldn’t. It’s also a way for Graham, who doesn’t face re-election in South Carolina until 2014, to send a olive branch to conservatives in South Carolina who have come to think that he’s gone off the reservation over the past several years on issues like immigration.

Cynical ? Perhaps, but that’s politics.

The truth of the matter is that there is going to be immigration reform of some kind soon, whether it comes in a lame duck session after the election or, more likely, after January. It will include increased emphasis on border security, a broadening of the guest worker program (which will be insisted upon by farming interests on both sides of the aisle), and some form of a “path to normalization” for the people that are here illegally who haven’t committed serious criminal offenses. Graham knows it. The rest of the GOP in Congress knows it. They just need to prepare their base for it.

FILED UNDER: 2010 Election, Borders and Immigration, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. ponce says:

    The Republican base appreciates crazy gestures.
    The crazier the better.

  2. There can be no doubt that this is a wholly cynical political move.

  3. An Interested Party says:

    In other words, it’s just like the way they talk about abortion but aren’t really going to do anything to outlaw it…after awhile, some conservatives must feel like such rubes…

  4. Herb says:

    “Graham knows it. The rest of the GOP in Congress knows it. They just need to prepare their base for it.”

    Considering the effort George W. Bush put into it, you’d think they’d already be prepared….

  5. ponce says:

    What happens to the Tea Party and its ilk if the Republicans take the House and then continue to pass budgets with massive deficits?
    Will Dick Armey just shed them like a snake shedding its skin.

  6. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    I guess if I went on a killing spree, assinating liberals where ever I found them, it would be OK for me to benefit from writing a book about my acts after the fact.  The authors of the 14th Amendment did not intend for it to apply to those who invade our country by crossing our borders illegally to give birth.  Considering when that Amendment passed, there was not way that was the intent.  Open border people and those who think America has not right to its sovereignty.  One must remember Mexico was not a nation until it was established by Spain and a mixture of Spanish and Native American does not make a race.  Democrats are more interested in votes than truth.  We will see what you look like with egg all over your face Doug, after November.  Remember, you heard it here first.

  7. mannning says:

    Here we go again!  All kinds of people trying to amend the Constitution in various ways, and others plotting furiously how to circumvent the Constitution, again, in various ways.
    We have the Anchor baby problem.  We have the Income Tax versus the Fair Tax problem.
    I am sure that there are other issues as well being prepped for one route or another by this Administration.
    Anyone want to add to this list?
    Perhaps it is just as well that come January or so none of the Amendment ideas will fly, and what we then have to watch for are the sneaky approaches of a conniving and dishonest Administration.
    I still find it very hard to believe that Obama made it to the Presidency, once you intelligent people have read all there is about him beforehand and absorbed his directions for change of the nation. I simply didn’t realize, I guess, how many avowed, coattail, and inadvertent Marxists were in the nation today.
    God help us!

  8. anjin-san says:

    Hmmm. I work for a Fortune 500 company, at a pretty senior level. I spend most of my time at work thinking about how we can sell more of our products and how we can become more profitable.
    In the wacky world of guys like Zels and Manning, I am an avowed Marxist.

  9. wr says:

    Zels — Here’s the sad truth: Even if your side wins and they pass laws making it illegal to be black or brown, you’ll still be a sad little man, living on government  handouts and screaming about how other poor, powerless people are destroying your life while those who are really responsible for the nation’s ills laugh at you for falling for their schtick yet again. Then what will you do? I guess you could decide it’s all the fault of the Jews or the Asians and start a crusade against them. Or maybe you could wise up.

    I’m putting my money on pogroms…

  10. reid says:

    “Obama voter” = Marxist.  O-o-okay.  Manning, go back to the Glenn Beck forum where that nonsense is relished.