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Contentions

Reasons for Conservatives Not to Fiddle with the Constitution

CONTENTIONS’ Pete Wehner and others have participated in a New York Times forum on immigration reform, specifically focused on the notion that we should amend the 14th Amendment. It should come as no surprise to regular readers that I concur with Pete’s take. There are certainly political considerations, as Pete reminds us: “Hispanics are among the fastest growing demographic groups in America. The party of Lincoln and Reagan can appeal to them with a principled stand on illegal immigration, in combination with policies that increase economic growth, entrepreneurship, and social cohesion.” But I find the following to be the most compelling reasons for conservatives to oppose a constitutional amendment repealing birthright citizenship:

For one thing, the evidence that “anchor babies” are a magnet for illegal immigration doesn’t exist (the main motivators are searching for work and better economic conditions). For another, amending the 14th Amendment — which would require a vote of two-thirds of both the House and the Senate, followed by a ratification of three-fourths of the state legislatures — is a distraction from necessary things that need to be done, including securing the southern border, toughening enforcement policies, and expediting the legal process to cut the average deportation time.

It would also be a dramatic and unnecessary break with precedent. As a general matter, conservatives oppose tinkering with the Constitution, especially for empty causes.

It is because the repeal of birthright citizenship is so radical an idea (the most extreme solution to a problem that can be resolved by less draconian means) and so antithetical to the evidence-based, reasoned arguments that conservatives generally engage in that I find the push for a revision of the Constitution so objectionable. I admit to being somewhat shocked that so many usually sober-minded conservatives are serious about the idea.

Tamar Jacoby explains what a push for a constitutional amendment would and wouldn’t do:

Amending the Constitution is, and should be, an extremely difficult process – we’ve done it only 17 times since the Bill of Rights. The 14th Amendment cuts to the heart of what it means to be American. A reconsideration would touch on some of the most deeply felt issues in our political psyche – slavery, immigration, assimilation, racial and ethnic equality. And the debate would give new meaning to the word “wrenching,” all but tearing the country apart. Yet because of the way the constitutional process is rigged against change, the fight would probably not produce an amendment.

Besides, even if it did, that would hardly fix what’s broken about our immigration system. Revoking birthright citizenship would punish the children of the workers who have entered illegally in past decades. But it would do little to prevent others from coming in the future. They come overwhelmingly to work, not to have babies. And it would only make it harder – immeasurably harder – to assimilate those already here.

Perhaps this is an unseemly election-year stunt that will vanish once the votes are counted in November. We can only hope so, and also hope for a return to a perfectly rational solution: a tall wall (border enforcement) and a wide gate (a very generous legal-immigration policy), to borrow from Charles Krauthammer.


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