Sens. Vitter and Paul Introduce Birthright Citizenship Bill

Discussions about American citizenship are at their heart debates about who belongs in this country and who does not.

By Julianne Hing Jan 28, 2011

On Thursday Sens. David Vitter and Rand Paul announced a bill to amend the Constitution and redefine the very notions of American citizenship. Their bill would end the constitutional right to citizenship that is automatically conferred upon every child born in the U.S.

"For too long, our nation has seen an influx of illegal aliens entering our country at an escalating rate, and chain migration is a major contributor to this rapid increase – which is only compounded when the children of illegal aliens born in the U.S. are granted automatic citizenship," Vitter said in a joint statement with Paul. "Closing this loophole will not prevent them from becoming citizens, but will ensure that they have to go through the same process as anyone else who wants to become an American citizen."

The birthright citizenship bills have been widely condemned by immigrant and civil rights groups. "The right of citizenship at birth has long been the law of the land and for good reason," said Deborah Vagins, ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel. "The 14th Amendment was intended to heal a great wound inflicted on our country after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott, denying citizenship to African-Americans and their descendants. Any proposed subversion of such constitutionally protected rights should be soundly rejected."

Vagins called birthright citizenship one of the Constitution’s "most essential tools to ensure equality and fairness under the law…regardless of who their parents are or whether Congress approves of them."

"Our nation’s extraordinarily accomplished early history is marred by a pattern of legally-sanctioned exclusion and racism," Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said in a statement. "The ratification of the 14th Amendment–and its Citizenship Clause in particular–permanently altered this extraordinarily regrettable pattern."

"This week’s introduction of a proposed constitutional amendment to return this nation to its pre-Civil War infamy will earn a permanent place in the annals of shameful senatorial conduct."

Vitter and Paul do not see citizenship as a fundamental right that is guaranteed by the Constitution, even though that is how the 14th Amendment has been interpreted and upheld in the courts for nearly 150 years, beginning with the landmark Supreme Court case U.S. v. Wong Ark Kim in 1898, in which the Court ruled that the U.S.-born son of a Chinese-born couple was indeed a U.S. citizen. Still, Vitter and Paul said that the 14th Amendment does not grant U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants citizenship in either "language or intent."

Vitter and Paul are itching for another Supreme Court review on the matter. Their bill is part of a coordinated effort to revisit the topic and force a change. State legislators who’ve introduced similar bills have been very direct about stating their intentions. Yesterday, Arizona State Rep. John Kavanagh and State Sen. Ron Gould introduced their own bills attacking birthright citizenship.

In order to amend the Constitution both houses of Congress will have to pass the legislation with a two-thirds majority, after which three-fourths of the states will have to ratify the amendment. It’s a laborious process.

Legal proceedings aside, discussions about American citizenship are at their heart debates about who belongs in this country and who does not. It’s a debate, and an entirely racialized one at that (See: Vitter’s campaign ads from last November) that hinges on fear and racial hatred.

"Citizenship is a privilege, and only those who respect our immigration laws should be allowed to enjoy its benefits," Paul said.