Birthright and Wrong
Why anti-immigration forces are both scornful of and grateful to Lindsey Graham.
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.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Lindsey Graham by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.