President Donald Trump did what he does best in vowing to unilaterally end birthright citizenship. As a legal matter, it is ridiculous to contend presidents can rewrite the U.S. Constitution on their own. But Trump again created a diversion and played to unfounded fears about immigrants in hopes of driving up Republican turnout in Tuesday's midterm elections. Voters should see through the distraction and focus on the real issues in federal, state and even local races.
Trump said in an interview Tuesday he is preparing an executive order to nullify the long-established constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship. As enshrined in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in the aftermath of the Civil War, it states: "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 amendment means any child born in the states is considered a citizen, a principle the courts have upheld for more than a century. Amendments to the Constitution can be changed by overwhelming majority action by Congress or the states, but not by presidential fiat.
Most legal scholars dismissed the president's vow, which is the latest in a steady diet of scare tactics and distractions Trump has raised in the run-up to Tuesday's midterm elections. Last week, Trump declared he is close to presenting a middle-class tax cut to Congress — even though Congress is not in session and lawmakers know nothing about it. This week, he ordered 5,200 active-duty U.S. military forces to the southwest border to confront a migrant caravan from Central America — even though the caravan is still 900 miles way and the troops are set to leave before any migrants would arrive.
America faces serious challenges in controlling its borders and in dealing with the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here. That's why Congress and the president need to come to terms on a comprehensive deal that strengthens border security, brings undocumented immigrants who are here now out of the shadows and on a path to citizenship, and puts America's immigration system on a more sustainable path that promotes the nation's social and economic interests. But that's not the conversation the president wants. Trump inflames the issue by painting migrants as a criminal horde threatening American lives, jobs and society in an effort to turn out more Republicans at the polls. No wonder there's little room or political appetite in this environment for sensible voices to emerge in Washington.
The collateral damage is wreaking havoc up and down the ballot. In Florida, Republican candidates for Congress and the Legislature are following Trump's playbook by claiming their Democratic opponents are for open borders and sanctuary cities. In reality, what Democrats (and many Republican local sheriffs) have called for is a more orderly and legally defensible process for detaining those suspected of immigration violations.
Yet Trump has raised the political temperature higher with his suggestion he could unilaterally overturn the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The measure was originally adopted after the Civil War to assure citizenship for all, including former black slaves, but the U.S. Supreme Court later affirmed that protection for all children born of immigrants on U.S. soil. And the United States is hardly an outlier; at least 30 other countries grant automatic birthright citizenship.
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No nation can have open borders allowing anyone to come in from anywhere. No president of any political party would wave thousands in the caravan in Mexico into the United States without vetting each individual. But Trump is demonizing all immigrants by warning the marchers are an invading force to be stopped by the military.
Trump's fear-mongering and the suggestion he can end birthright citizenship guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution is another cynical campaign tactic to appeal to the worst nationalistic impulses within his own party. Voters should reject these scare tactics Tuesday and support candidates who recognize the difference between seeking solutions and spreading fear.