1. Opinion

Column: Railing against birthright citizenship — we've heard it all before

When I hear presidential candidates call for an end to birthright citizenship, I think about Wendy Ruiz.

Wendy was born and raised in Florida. But the state refused to grant her in-state tuition because she could not prove her parents were lawfully in the country. Of course, Wendy was not only a Florida resident. She was also an American citizen by virtue of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of birthright citizenship. Yet, Florida — like many GOP presidential candidates today — wanted to punish people like Wendy over their parents' immigration status.

The Southern Poverty Law Center sued the state in federal court and won. The decision should be required reading for all presidential candidates.

It states the obvious: that "no child is responsible for his birth" and that penalizing the child "is an ineffectual — as well as unjust — way of deterring the parent."

It's a principle found in the Bible. (Ezekiel 18:20: "The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father.") It's also a fundamental principle of our democracy — one that reflects that there are no second-class citizens; that all persons born in this country, regardless of the status of their parents, are equal citizens under the law.

Attacks on birthright citizenship are nothing new.

When the 14th Amendment was debated in Congress in 1866, Sen. Edgar Cowan of Pennsylvania raged against the idea of the children of Chinese immigrants and Gypsies becoming citizens by virtue of being born here. He argued that citizenship should be preserved for "people of my own blood and lineage, people of the same religion, people of the same beliefs and traditions." He warned against "a flood of immigration of the Mongol race" and of the country being "invaded," not just by Gypsies — "trespassers" and "swindle(rs)" in Cowan's view — but by "people from Borneo, man-eaters or cannibals, if you please."

Sound like a certain reality TV star turned presidential candidate?

Sen. John Conness of California rose in defense of birthright citizenship. He conceded that "it may be very good capital in an electioneering campaign to declaim against the Chinese." But he pointed out that they were an "industrious people … now passing from mining into other branches of industry," including farming and the "building (of) the Pacific railroad." Their children and those of Gypsies born in this country should be "regarded as citizens of the United States," he said. No person "claiming to have a high humanity," he argued, could take a contrary position.

Fortunately for our country, Sen. Conness carried the day. Congress voted to propose the 14th Amendment with its birthright citizenship guarantee in the summer of 1866, and the requisite number of states ratified it two years later. It's been a pillar of our democracy ever since.

But, given the heated rhetoric of some of the Republican presidential hopefuls, one has to wonder whether our country's supply of "high humanity" is dwindling. One thing is for sure: just as it was in 1866, railing against birthright citizenship is still "very good capital in an electioneering campaign."

I wish that Wendy Ruiz, our client in the case in Florida, could get as much airtime as the Trumps of the world because there is no more powerful spokesperson for the importance of retaining the principle of birthright citizenship than she.

Last fall, Wendy stood in the pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. That's the church from which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies launched the modern civil rights movement.

She shared a deeply American story with those lucky enough to be in the church that day. She talked about the struggles of her farmworker parents; she talked about her determination to get an education; she talked about her dream of becoming a lawyer so she could give back to the community.

It is inconceivable to me that we would want to deny the blessings of citizenship to the Wendy Ruizes of the world. Ending birthright citizenship won't end our immigration problems. It will only rob our nation of its greatest resource: citizens deeply committed to the American dream.

J. Richard Cohen is president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.