‘Birthright’ citizenship is questioned — but ‘the 12 million’ are the real issue

Central American migrants begin their morning trek as part of a thousands-strong caravan hoping to reach the U.S. border, upon departure from Cordoba, Veracruz state, Mexico, Monday, Nov. 5, 2018.

President Trump created a firestorm — a phrase that could describe almost any of his actions — when he said last month that he would issue an executive order ending “birthright” citizenship for children born in the U.S. to parents who are undocumented immigrants.

Like most Americans, we have taken it for granted that the Constitution, specifically the 14th Amendment, grants citizenship to anyone born in the United States. Though we’ve often heard rousing debate on whether that makes sense, we were oblivious until last week that there existed legitimate scholarly debate on whether the Constitution really means what we think it means.

We admit that critics of that interpretation make an intriguing argument.

Prior to the 14th Amendment’s ratification in 1868, the Constitution was silent on the question of citizenship. It only gave Congress the power to legislate how non-citizens could be naturalized.

The amendment was passed and ratified in the wake of the Civil War. Slavery had been abolished by the 13th Amendment, but former slaves born in the United States and their children, born free or otherwise, were not guaranteed citizenship. Many states, even some Union “free” states, did not extend citizenship to blacks and other nonwhites.

The 14 Amendment 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.”

The key issue, the argument goes, is what is meant by “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” It’s the kind of arcane nuance that can set jurisprudence on its ear.

For several decades “all persons” didn’t mean everyone. Most American Indians, for example, were not granted citizenship until a 1924 act of Congress because they were subject to tribal jurisdiction. The children born here of ambassadors are not citizens because their parents are not subject to U.S. law.

While the Supreme Court has ruled a child born here to immigrant parents in the country legally is a citizen, it has not specifically ruled on the question of birthright citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants.

We think children born in the United States are citizens of the United States, regardless of how their parents came to be here. A significant number of Pacific County’s young people are likely to have been born here of parents who did not follow immigration laws. Stripping these young people of citizenship would be unjust. It appears that opinion could be tested in court.

In the meantime, a bigger issue than the legality of birthright citizenship is the status of some 12 million undocumented immigrants living here.

If we are to honor the rule of law, they cannot be allowed to stay in the shadows as they have for decades.

We continue to believe the answer is to offer undocumented immigrants with otherwise clean criminal records temporary legal status and a path to permanent residency after 10 years if they meet strict requirements. We think the border should be secured. A viable guestworker program must be established, and employers must verify the work status of their employees.

Let them stay, or make them go. Only Congress can do this, and we think Congress should act.

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