Commentary: 14th Amendment is a favorite debate for demogogues

Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.
Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. MCT

Election year scripts are pretty well established in American politics.

For Republicans, the script usually involves a polarizing issue, invariably some imagined threat to the nation or its traditional values, around which the party's handmaidens in the conservative media can be counted on to help whip up hysteria.

This year they've gone for broke with a proposal to revise the U.S. Constitution. Several leading members of Congress are pushing the idea of hearings to discuss gutting all or part of the 14th Amendment. What bothers them is that the amendment allows anyone born on U.S. soil to be a U.S. citizen. Anyone — even if that person's parents are lettuce pickers from Guatemala who found it expedient not to gain permission before coming to this country.

These people come, it is alleged, with the intention of spawning "anchor babies." That is, citizen children who make it impossible for the U.S. to rid itself of the parents. This supposed defect in our Constitution is an irresistible enticement to illegal immigrants and therefore needs to be quashed immediately. For those given to grander conspiracy theories, at least one congressman, Republican Louie Gohmert of Texas, is warning of terrorist babies, future evil-doers birthed in the U.S. but indoctrinated abroad, who will return in 20 to 30 years full grown and carrying U.S. passports.

But is there anything to the anchor baby phenomenon, or to the contention of some that the 14th Amendment really was meant to be applied to freed slaves, not to immigrants and most certainly not to the children of illegal immigrants? One way to find out would be to take up the call of Republican leaders such as Sen. Lindsey Graham and actually hold hearings on the matter. Let's get sworn testimony from constitutional scholars, legal historians, demographers and migration experts. If we don't have enough research to understand the motivations of illegal immigrants, let's get some.

I suspect the first fallacy to unravel would be that of the "anchor baby." Despite this term's increasing acceptance in our lexicon, now even as an epithet, it's a red herring. A child must reach the ripe age of 21 before he can seek to right his parents’ illegal status. And the parents have to trek back to their native land. For many people illegally in the country, this trip back will also kick in a 10-year ban from returning. And visas have to be available, which can take decades. So by the time this "anchoring" payoff can happen, one or both parents could be dead.

Why not just make a simpler assumption: that illegal immigrants are coming here to make a better life for their families, which is why immigrants have always come here?

Which brings us to the 14th Amendment's reason for being: to prevent the perpetuation of a civil caste system. Yes, it dealt a final blow to the slavery question, but it also was a rejoinder to the Dred Scott decision, which kept even the children of freed slaves from full citizenship. Subsequent case law and readings of the intent clearly enshrine its broad reach to immigrants and their children, even when the parents are not legally present.

Talk about the majesty and wisdom of our Constitution! This gets to the essence of what it means to be an American. Unlike most nations, even the most advanced democratic ones, we don't have a permanent class of native-born aliens, and for that we should be thankful! To fool with the 14th Amendment is to tread upon the ideal that most of us hold dear: that in America, even those of humble beginnings, those born without silver spoons or even parents without the right paperwork, can succeed with hard work and perseverance.

There is virtually no chance of Congress and the states rewriting the U.S. Constitution to amend the 14th Amendment. But, then, this issue is demagoguery, a powerful weapon. By twisting history, giving their own horribly inaccurate readings on the Constitution they claim to hold so dear, proponents of repeal really hope just for success on Election Day.

It's an old trick, of course. Virtually every immigrant group had to make its way past such shallow tactics and nativist zeal. Thankfully, since 1868 they have had the equalizing force of the 14th amendment on their side.

The problem is not in the U.S. Constitution, but in ourselves.

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