Why anti-immigration forces are both scornful of and grateful to Lindsey Graham.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Aug. 11 2010 2:05 PM

Birthright and Wrong

Why anti-immigration forces are both scornful of and grateful to Lindsey Graham.

Lindsey Graham. Click image to expand.
Lindsey Graham

The people who want to crack down on immigration have an easy-to-follow rule: Don't trust Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. He has tried twice to bring about comprehensive immigration reform, in 2006 and 2007, earning the blogger-created nickname, "Grahamnesty." He once called his critics "bigots" at a 2007 meeting of La Raza, which was—gasp—giving him an award.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

It's for this reason that immigration restrictionists scoff at Graham's call to revisit the 14th Amendment and end the "birthright citizenship" granted to children born within American borders no matter where their parents are from. "This is Lindsey Graham-standing," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "Coming from Lindsey Graham, this is pandering," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "It's not something to take seriously."

Basically, no one agrees with what Graham said when he kicked off this debate. On July 28, he appeared on Greta Van Susteren's Fox News show and declared that "birthright citizenship, I think, is a mistake [and] I think we should change our Constitution and say, if you come here illegally and have a child, that child is automatically not a citizen."

"That is going to cause such a stir!" said Van Susteren.

That was a good call. For nearly two weeks, reporters have dogged senators to ask whether they agree with Graham. Liberals and the people Krikorian calls "high immigration advocates" have reacted with outrage and new calls to stop the Republicans from taking Congress. It's been a perfect political story, grade-A chuck for the cable news that drives White House spokesman Robert Gibbs to distraction. Most Republicans have endorsed the Graham stratagem. Three former aides to George W. Bush have criticized it, inspiring stories about a "GOP split" over immigration for their troubles.

Restrictionists—who oppose more immigration, legal or illegal—argue that it's been largely pointless. On Friday, National Review's Daniel Foster got Graham to explain that the 14th Amendment gambit was all about comprehensive immigration reform, a way to put "all laws on the table" and get a fresh debate about how to make more immigrants into citizens. The American Spectator's W. James Antle III declared that Graham "gave the game away" and said this was just the latest attempt to hornswaggle conservatives by promising them a constitutional amendment.

That's how some professional restrictionists see it, too. Graham suggested that an alteration to the 14th Amendment would easily win approval from two-thirds of state legislatures and Congress. But Republican political rhetoric is littered with promises of new amendments about the flag, gay marriage, abortion, and other wedge issues. Some Republicans are also pledging to bring back the Balanced Budget Amendment, which last failed in 1995.

None of this, say conservatives, will actually happen. The will to amend the Constitution is not there. Despite what Graham says, amending the Constitution is not easier than passing legislation and waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on it. "I don't know anyone who thinks we could try the amendment first and win," said Roy Beck, president of the restrictionist group NumbersUSA. Krikorian compared the Graham stratagem to the mostly forgotten aspect of 1996 welfare reform that outlawed benefits for recent legal immigrants. That, he said, was a bone tossed to restrictionists that distracted them from the brief political opening they had to cut down on legal immigration quotas.

"It's just posturing," said Krikorian. "It's like the flag-burning amendment that will never pass."

But beyond all the pessimism and mistrust, immigration restrictionists are winning something: They're having a debate about how to restrict immigration. In his attempt to defibrillate the amnesty debate, Graham shoved the entire immigration argument further to the right.

It works like this. When Arizona passed SB 1070, the law that allows police to check perps for proof of citizenship, many mainstream Republicans blanched at the law. Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia, for example, called it not "necessarily helpful to democracy." Then followed a minor legislative fix to the law and three months of polls showing its popularity, basically, everywhere. By the start of August, McDonnell's attorney general had signed an order putting Virginia's policy in line with Arizona's.

So the restrictionist hope is not that the Constitution will be amended. It's that Americans will start thinking about birthright citizenship. That's an issue on which restrictionists fare less well with the public than, say, on whether to deport illegal immigrants who commit other crimes. (An NBC News poll in July showed 49 percent of Americans backing birthright citizenship, compared with 46 percent who opposed it.) Still, it's good enough for Roy Beck. Get a debate about the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act going, gather support from Republicans in Congress who want to alter it, and you have the seeds of victory. The legislation to change the law is foundering in the House, but someone—probably current sponsor Rep. Gary Miller, R-Calif.—will resurrect it in 2011.

"All we really need to do is change that act in the Congress," Beck said. "The people who really want to get rid of birthright for tourists and illegal aliens want to pass a law, not debate an amendment. It's fine that Lindsey Graham started this fire, actually, even though he doesn't represent what we're doing."

Even if no one buys into Graham's 14th Amendment gambit, has Graham—the great immigration reformer's hope—actually hastened the end of birthright citizenship? Maybe. All that immigration restrictionists can hope for at the moment is for their cause to be elevated from the pile of "fringe issues" to the much nicer pile of "campaign-ready issues." The Graham-standing, which sets up a fight they can't win, gives them an opening to talk about an issue that, weeks ago, no one was talking about. That's not what Graham is promising them, but they'll take it.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

  Slate Plus
Slate Archives
Nov. 26 2014 12:36 PM Slate Voice: “If It Happened There,” Thanksgiving Edition Josh Keating reads his piece on America’s annual festival pilgrimage.