By MARSHA MERCER
Here we go again. Donald Trump’s proposal to stop birthright citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants is forcing Republicans into a debate they can’t win and should have ended decades ago.
In 1996, the Republican Party Platform called for a constitutional amendment to end automatic citizenship for children born to parents who are in the country illegally or are not long-term residents. The party's presidential and vice presidential nominees Bob Dole and Jack Kemp both rejected the plank.
“Born in America, you’re an American,” Kemp declared.
But that wasn’t the last word.
Since 2007, as anti-immigrant sentiment has flowed, a few congressional Republicans have backed bills to stop birthright citizenship. A measure by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has 27 cosponsors, all Republicans.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said at a hearing on birthright citizenship in April that he rarely has a conversation about immigration policy without someone asking about automatic citizenship.
“The question of whether our forefathers meant for birthright citizenship in all circumstances to be the law of the land is far from settled. In any event we must still determine if it is the right policy for America today,” Goodlatte said.
But there’s little appetite for the issue in the Senate, even among Republicans. A bill introduced by Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana has zero cosponsors.
Now comes Trump and his extreme immigration plan released Sunday. He cited Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid as wanting to end birthright citizenship, which Reid did -- in 1993. By 1999 Reid called his own proposal an embarrassment, high on his “list of mistakes.”
“I didn’t understand the issue,” Reid explained, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in December 1999. “I’m embarrassed that I made such a proposal.”
Naturally, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was quick to criticize Trump’s plan.
“It is disturbing that Republican presidential candidates continue to embrace extreme anti-immigrant positions as core pieces of their immigration platform,” Lorella Praeli, Hillary for America Latino Outreach director, said in a statement.
If Democrats now are united behind birthright citizenship, Republicans are in disarray. Presidential hopefuls Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal support ending automatic citizenship. Others, including Lindsey Graham, John Kasich, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum have supported changing the law in the past.
Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush prefer sticking with the law.
“Mr. Trump can say that he’s for this because people are frustrated that it’s abused. But we ought to fix the problem rather than take away rights,” Bush said on CBS. There must be ways short of a constitutional amendment to deal with the phenomenon of pregnant women entering the country to give birth so that their babies become citizens, Bush said.
Bush knows his brother George got 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2004 presidential election, according to exit polls, a modern record for a Republican. In 2012, Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, after his comment that undocumented immigrants should “self deport.”
The Constitution as originally written did not define citizenship, but since after the Civil War, anyone born in the United States has been a citizen. The 14th Amendment in 1868, a Reconstruction measure pressed by Republicans, overturned the Supreme Court’s odious Dred Scott decision that no black persons who had been “imported into the country, and sold as slaves” or their descendants could ever become citizens.
The 14th Amendment states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the state wherein they reside.”
In 1898, the Supreme Court ruled that a child born in San Francisco to Chinese parents was a citizen even though the parents could never become citizens because of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Changing the law would require passage of a constitutional amendment, a feat of bipartisanship nearly unimaginable in this era. Most legal scholars consider the 14th amendment settled.
So do pragmatic Republicans, those who actually want to win in 2016 – and not merely make debating points.
“If it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t even be talking about immigration,” Trump bragged at the first Republican candidates' debate. He’s right. Most GOP candidates would prefer not to alienate a large swath of Hispanic and other immigrant voters with a plan that’s going nowhere.
But Trump might be making someone happy. Her name is Hillary.
©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.