October 31, 2018

Distractions and Manipulations: Birthright Citizenship

A short series on media manipulation

by Chris Thomas

Editor’s Note

This is “Part 3 in on our series of awful issues meant to distract and manipulate” the American electorate. Part 1 covered the Migrant Caravan and is available here.

Distractions and Manipulations: The Caravan

Part 2 covered the Trump administration’s assault on transgender rights and how the timing of that assault was cynically timed for political gain.

Distractions and Manipulations: Transgender Redefinition

This essay focuses on Trump’s recent statement that he wants to end “birthright citizenship,” the constitutionally guaranteed citizenship of anyone born within the United States.

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Photo by Anthony Garand

On Tuesday, Donald Trump made the following statement:

We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States… It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. And it has to end….It’s in the process. It’ll happen … with an executive order.

Explaining how he was going to go about doing this, the President quipped

It was always told to me that you needed a constitutional amendment. Guess what? You don’t.

Guess what? You do, Mr President.

There are a lot of things in the U.S. Constitution that we can fight over. Is there a right to privacy? Can soldiers camp in your front yard in peacetime? What does “advice and consent” really mean?

Heck, we can fight about what the 2nd Amendment says. Even the authors of the Bill of Rights weren’t completely sure; the version passed by Congress has different punctuation than the version ratified by the states.

But what we can’t fight over is the actual text of the actual 14th amendment.

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.

— US Constitution, Amendment 14, Section 1

To describe the 14th Amendment here as “pretty clear cut” would be a gross understatement. The 14th Amendment is extremely blunt and to the point because the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments serve, in a sense, as the peace treaty ending the American Civil War. They were written both to settle the question of citizenship and to force the Southern States to recognize and respect the political claims of the millions of former slaves within their borders.

Overturning something like that is a lot harder than issuing an executive order.

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Photo by Brandon Mowinkel

Ok, but why are we talking about this now?

The 14th Amendment and the doctrine of “birthright citizenship” is extremely important. Those basic tenets of law are often all that stands between a hostile, majoritarian government and the minorities it would marginalize, persecute, and oppress. But the thing about an executive order is that the President can issue one literally whenever he wants to.

So why now?

Now, to be fair, it was Axios that raised the issue with Trump in their interview with him and Trump expressed surprise that they knew about it. It is strongly implied that someone told them and it’s not terribly hard to guess who that someone might have been. [Narrator: it was Trump]

After all, the midterm elections are less than a week away and the Trump-era Republican strategy is all about mobilizing the base while undermining the Democratic ability to do the same. The Republican base cares deeply about immigration; a fight about ending birthright citizenship will certainly turn them out.

Of course, the Democratic base cares about immigration too, but a lot fewer Democrats are going to vote on the basis of immigration policy than Republicans are. By announcing that he intends to issue an executive order overturning the 14th Amendment’s citizenship clause, Trump forces the news media to cover the story. That forces Democrats to comment on what a stupid idea it is. More importantly, it draws attention away from issues like healthcare, corruption, tax breaks for the upper 1%, child detention, right-wing terrorism, and a host of others which threaten to turn the moderate middle of the country against the increasingly radical GOP.

Keep your eye on the ball.

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