The idea of revoking birthright citizenship has wended its way through Washington for years. Democrat Harry Reid,former Senate Majority Leader, proposed revoking birthright citizenship in 1993, before repeatedly apologizing for it. (“I didn’t understand the issue. I’m embarrassed that I made such a proposal,” he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.) On the right, fear of “anchor babies” has been exploited politically by even moderates such as Jeb Bush, who invoked the issue in 2015. But Trump’s decisive claim that he could get end birthright citizenship with the stroke of a pen caused critics to drop their jaws. “He obviously cannot do that,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, noting the intractable reality: birthright citizenship has been enshrined in the 14th Amendment for 150 years and would require no less than an act of Congress or a Supreme Court challenge to knock it down, an endeavor the vast majority of legal scholars consider impossible.
Regardless of whether it is a midterm stunt, Trump’s fever dream has very real origins in the scholarship of the Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank based in Southern California—the front line, incidentally, of illegal border crossings. The current legal argument for revoking birthright citizenship, which had percolated on the left and right in the 90s, began gaining traction in 2006, when John C. Eastman, a Claremont Institute affiliate who is a professor at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law, published an article for the Heritage Foundation laying out a three-point argument to challenge the authority of birthright citizenship. First, according to Eastman, at the time of the 1866 Civil Rights Act, children born to foreigners were “not entitled to claim the birthright citizenship” provided by the act. Since the Act eventually became the backbone of the 14th Amendment, therefore, the original interpretation of citizenship should take precedence. Second, he argued the reading of the 14th Amendment—that birthright citizenship can be bestowed upon anyone who is “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States—was overbroad; in Eastman’s reading, citizenship can only be bestowed upon people with “total and exclusive allegiance” to the country. If a child’s parents had not pledged fealty to America, either by becoming full citizens or establishing permanent residence, their loyalty to the Constitution would, by all definitions, be as temporary as that of their parents. (The common legal interpretation of ”subject to the jurisdiction” is that anyone who enters the country, no matter how briefly, are subject to U.S. laws.) Finally, he wrote, the policy was a medieval remnant inconsistent with the Founding and the notion that Americans need consent to be governed: “This consent must be present, either explicitly or tacitly, not just in the formation of the government, but also in the ongoing decision whether to embrace others within the social compact of the particular people.”
The next year, Edward J. Erler, a Claremont scholar and one of the original thinkers on birthright issues, published a book with two colleagues examining what reviewer and Hoover Institution fellow Victor Davis Hanson deemed the problem of “massive illegal immigration from Mexico” for the American identity: “How did the founders and their successors deal with problems of being an American, and what are the effects of massive noncompliance with the laws of the United States?” Apart from several additional treatises they published, however, the idea never caught on with the rest of the conservative legal community. “It’s certainly in the idea of originalism, in that it relies that you understand the text at the time it was written, [but] there are a lot of people, even in that broadly conservative camp, that just reject it,” said Corey Brettschneider, professor of political science and public policy at Brown University, and the recent author of The Oath and the Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents. “There are a couple of scholars that are pushing it, but it’s not a mainstream view even in conservative circles. That’s because it’s kind of wacky.”