According to Politico, Senator John McCain has added his voice to GOP calls for congressional hearings into altering the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. This just about completes a stunning turnabout by McCain (and by his friend and colleague Lindsey Graham) on immigration. As Politico reports, McCain was a champion in 2007 of a comprehensive immigration bill which would have provided a pathway to citizenship to illegal immigrants. But he has taken an increasingly hard-line position on the issue as he faces a conservative primary challenger, J.D. Hayworth, in a state that has become the epicenter for the nation’s battle over immigration reform.
On the merits of McCain’s position: As a general matter, the conservative starting point should be opposition to Constitutional amendments, especially as regards the 14th amendment (the so-called “citizenship clause” refers to the first sentence of Section 1 in the 14th amendment, which reversed the part of Chief Justice Taney’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford that declared that even free blacks like Dred Scott were not citizens of the United States and could never become so). Opposition to Constitutional amendments shouldn’t be absolute by any means; but it is, I think, a prudent predisposition.
Beyond that, though, McCain’s stand strikes me as political posturing — something that has no chance of passage and which may end up being distracting from the real problems we face and that we can far more easily address, including the reduction of the large number of illegal immigrants crossing our borders.
There is an argument according to which, if we were starting from scratch, children of illegal immigrants should not be granted automatic citizenship; after all, this was clearly not the use of the 14th amendment intended by its architects. But we’re not beginning from scratch — and revoking birthright citizenship now would, as Michael Gerson has written, “turn hundreds of thousands of infants into ‘criminals’ — arriving, not across a border, but crying in a hospital.”
Senator McCain’s U-turn is certainly not without precedent in American politics. But it is nevertheless fairly dramatic — and for a man who has long fancied himself a person of unusual political courage and independence, it is discouraging.