What do the words in the Constitution mean? Do they mean what they say? When the Second Amendment says, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed,” does it really mean that? Or can we go back and try to figure out what the authors really meant, even if somehow they failed to write it? Most conservatives would say, the words mean what they say. But not Michael Anton. He argues in a Washington Post op-ed we should overthrow the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection of birthright citizenship in exactly the way progressives try to overthrow the Second.
Anton, a former White House official and author of the famous Flight 93 essay that imagined an America ten minutes from implosion, carts out in his latest an argument that every American should reject. His first argument, that birthright citizenship is a bad thing, is wrong enough. His second hot take, that President Trump should abandon the text of the Constitution and use an executive order to strip Americans of their citizenship, is an offensive dumpster fire.
Let’s be clear what Anton actually intends. He writes, “An executive order could specify to federal agencies that the children of noncitizens are not citizens.” Any plain reading of this indicates that Anton wishes to strip Americans, specifically American children, of their citizenship in a completely unprecedented way.
Anton would be on solid ground rejecting birthright citizenship if he lived in Europe. Birthright citizenship essentially doesn’t exist there. Generations of immigrants live without permanent status even if they are born there. So, according to Anton’s big plan, this should result in a fantastic situation.
But wait, it doesn’t. In fact, it creates incredible instability and often violence. It creates ghettos where non citizens live with no real connection to the nation. Anton argues birthright citizenship is a magnet to immigrants. But Europe doesn’t have birthright citizenship, and is also being flooded by migrants, so why would ending it here turn off the spigot?
Non-European (read non-white) kids born in Europe do not feel the same connection to their country that a child of immigrants feels in America. In America, where people are judged on the content of their character, not the color of their skin, anyone can be a citizen. My son goes to school in Brooklyn with the children of immigrants who are just as American as he is, regardless of Anton’s terrified xenophobia. His proposal would throw the lives of my neighbors, fellow parishioners, and friends into complete havoc, and he offers no compelling reason why it should happen.
What Makes America Great?
Anton’s shriveled and scared notion of what America is or should be rejects the entire basis and meaning of our nation. Birthright citizenship is the very foundation of America’s immeasurable power, not only as a nation but as an idea. No blood, skin color, or heritage makes anyone an American. Every child born here is a blessing to the greatest nation that has ever existed.
When a baby takes his first breath within the borders of the United States, he is free. His eyes open to a life in which he matters more than his government. A place where he can make decisions and make mistakes. Such children are, each in their turn, the newest soldiers in an army that has convinced much of the world that freedom and liberty are the best option. Anton would deplete those forces and empower our adversaries.
What Anton fails to make clear at all is what problem he trying to fix. The closest he comes is this:
Practically, birthright citizenship is, as Erler put it, “a great magnet for illegal immigration.” This magnet attracts not just millions of the world’s poor but also increasingly affluent immigrants. “Maternity hotels” for pregnant Chinese tourists advertise openly in Southern California and elsewhere. Fly to the United States to have your baby, and its silly government will give him or her American citizenship!
Well, what exactly is the problem with attracting the world’s poor, something that is and has been at the core of the American identity from the country’s founding? And how big a problem is birth tourism? Is it really worth denying citizenship to hundreds of thousands of babies? And what do we do with those babies? Deport them? Anton makes no effort to explain why this is a crisis that requires such a drastic solution. And frankly, it isn’t.
Whatever his actual reasons are, he does not make them clear.
So, let’s look at the legal argument. Federal Circuit Court Judge James Ho weighed in on it for The Federalist here. But let’s just ask: What does the Fourteenth Amendment say? “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States” That’s pretty clear, and here’s why that matters. If “persons born” doesn’t really mean, “persons born” then “shall not be infringed” doesn’t mean “shall not be infringed.” Why? Because progressives and Anton think these rights are mitigated by government interest.
Anton argues, as do opponents of gun rights, that the framers of the amendment never meant it to include kids of foreign citizens. They would have put that in the amendment, presumably, but maybe they ran out time, or got tired or something. In any event, we are told to read a legislator’s notes and glean from that a way to use judicial activism to legislate from the bench.
And as it turns out, even Anton’s supporting quote is incredibly misleading as he added the word “or” to it to make it say the opposite of what it actually said. How or why The Washington Post allowed him to do so is a mystery, but the fact that he has to resort to making things up is telling. The original quote from Sen. Jacob Howard doesn’t say citizenship should be excluded to “foreigners, aliens, [or] who belong to the families of Ambassadors.” The quote excludes “foreigners, aliens, who belong to the families of Ambassadors,” and it goes on to say it does not exclude any other class of persons.
The @washingtonpost opinion staff should be ashamed of themselves for letting Michael Anton run this garbage op-ed. This, for example, is one of the most misleadingly edited quotes I've ever seen: pic.twitter.com/gARKf2OL1B
— Dan Trombly (@stcolumbia) July 19, 2018
In fact, the legal question is moot. Anton wants the president to break the law and issue an executive order that he knows won’t stand. Why? Why would a serious conservative leader abandon the notion of reading the Constitution literally? This is, arguably, the most important part of being a conservative. A conservative who thinks that the Constitution can be interpreted any which way from Sunday might as well put on a Bernie Sanders T-shirt.
And again, whatever crisis Anton imagines this unprecedented abuse of presidential power is fixing is his own secret.
Michael Anton Is Wrong
Reading his deeply troubling op-ed, it’s very clear that Anton is disconnected from the traditional vision of America. It suggests a fearful, bunker mentality better suited to progressive safe spaces than conservative visions of a free world. He seems to have a bizarre fear that America is being taken advantage of. This op-ed is the sad musing of a man desperate to hide behind a wall.
Last month a laughable article in The New Yorker bemoaned that Chick-fil-A had invaded New York City — the author and his progressive friends felt attacked. That’s what Anton’s pathetic fear of difference here feels like. There is nothing broken about birthright citizenship. There is nothing wrong with accepting others as equals and partners.
On every level — legally, morally, and even in terms of enlightened self interest — Anton’s advice is anathema to the animating principles of America. He thinks too many Chinese kids are American citizens? Is he crazy? China would love to drain our brainpower through immigration. But that’s not how it goes, instead we glean the advantages of robust immigration.
Birthright citizenship is as central to the American experiment as any idea is. It is what makes us. To turn our back on it is to surrender our place as the hope of the world. Why Anton would want that is a mystery to me. But whatever his reasons, we must never let it happen.