Steve King wants to repeal citizenship by birthright.

Iowa House Republican Steve King is convinced that the 14th amendment was not meant to apply to the children of immigrants. He has currently been pushing a bill that would invalidate automatic citizenship born to people who don’t legally reside in the country.

They root their argument in the people who wrote the 14th amendment only intended it to grant automatic citizenship to children of former slaves and people didn’t think it should grant citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants, they also tend to claim that the 1898 Wonk Kim Ark case was the start of the current “incorrect” interpretation. Apart from the questionable use of originialsm when the actual text in the 14th amendment is already pretty clear, this isn’t as certain an argument as they make it seem. For one thing, unauthorized immigration wasn’t really a thing in 1866. I’m not an expert so feel free to correct me if I missed something but the first anti-immigration legislation I know of was the Page Act of 1875 which was directed mostly at Asian immigrants, but even then the law was pretty limited.

Their had been a nativist movement in the 1840’s and early 1850’s, but it was mostly drowned out by the mounting discussion of whether or not slavery would be legal in newly formed states. In any case, while there was certainly a lot of racism and dislike of immigrants the federal government didn’t have many limits on immigration, or people’s path to citizenship. According to the naturalization law of 1795 (the one in effect when the civil war started) you could petition the court to grant you citizenship if you were a free white person who had lived in the U.S. for five years, and one year in his current state. However, and this is important, citizenship wasn’t a requirement in order to live and work in the U.S., and it many states wasn’t even a requirement for voting.

The historian Eric Foner has this to say about the argument Steve King is making:

Lately, there has been much debate over whether the children of undocumented immigrants are included—are they subject to the “jurisdiction” of the United States? Of course they are. The debates in Congress make clear that the language was meant to exclude Native Americans and two other tiny groups: children born in the United States to diplomats and children fathered by members of occupying armies (fortunately, the latter case has not arisen since the amendment’s ratification).

There was much talk from the amendment’s opponents about whether it covered children of Chinese immigrants, since the parents could not become naturalized citizens, and of gypsies. One senator said he had heard more about gypsies during the debate than in his entire previous life. Lyman Trumbull, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, made it crystal clear that Chinese, gypsies, and anyone else one could think of were, in fact, included.

So there you have it, despite King’s insistence that he is acting to defend the 14th amendment he is essentially making the same arguments that the congressmen who opposed the 14th amendment were making. Those who wrote the bill made in clear that they intended it to apply to immigrants, and as I pointed out the concept of illegal immigration did not exist yet, so it’s impossible to know how they would have viewed it. But King’s arguments go even further.

I don’t think I’m hearing an argument as to why it would be a good idea to grant automatic citizenship to any baby that could be born in the United States to any mother who could find a way to get into the United States, That hands over the immigration policy to everyone except Americans. So I don’t know that that’s even a debate before this committee unless you want to expand your political base by any means necessary

This is a very odd argument. He is clearly seems to be saying Democrats are trying to make it easy for these immigrants to vote so they can win elections, which is a kind of conspiratorial argument. Further, if one had a mind to you could easily turn it around and say King wants to keep those voters out so HIS party can win elections. Though I would not make that argument, because I don’t actually know what King’s intent is.

I also wonder if King has ever considered the possibility that he is creating his own problems these immigrant groups by putting bills like this forward. The bill almost certainly won’t pass, and even if it did it would mostly like be found unconstitutional, but it’s a fair guess that when these people do get the right to vote they won’t be voting for King.

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