Birthright Citizenship and Natural Rights

Michael Anton, who was a speechwriter for George W. Bush’s administration and later a pro-Trump blogger for the Journal of American Greatness, has acquired additional fame as a critic of granting citizenship to the offspring of illegal aliens.  Anton’s work has not gone unnoticed.  Advocates of giving instant citizenship to “anchor babies” have predictably attacked him as a racist for questioning their generous gesture.  Supposedly, the Fourteenth Amendment provides for a right to citizenship for anyone born on American soil.  And though the same amendment requires that those who are granted this right are “subject to the jurisdiction” of the American government, those groups who were thought to be outside this jurisdiction, we are told, are Indian tribes and the children of foreign diplomats.  Presumably, in both these cases, those who were born on American soil were subject to another jurisdiction, whether a foreign government or a tribal council with specific rights granted by Congress.

In a long article in Claremont Review, Anton shows that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment did not mean to grant citizenship to the babies of whoever came here illegally or in order to have babies on American soil.  His arguments warrant our attention.  It is highly unlikely, as Anton’s opponents concede, that the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment had in mind “anchor babies” when they discussed birthright citizenship.  They were thinking specifically about negro freemen, who had recently been slaves.  The authors were undoing the effects of the Dred Scott decision issued by the Supreme Court in 1857 that denied that blacks were eligible for citizenship under the Constitution.

Encounters: My Life wi... Paul Gottfried Best Price: $5.20 Buy New $5.60 (as of 08:10 EST - Details) Although in 1898 the court had acknowledged the citizenship right of a child born to Chinese parents in the U.S., Anton points out that in this case, U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, the justices were acknowledging the citizenship of the child of legal residents.  Significantly, Anton argues, those who held the minority position in this case probably understood the Fourteenth Amendment better.  One of its authors, Senator Jacob M. Howard of Michigan, expressed concern that the amendment not be worded in such a way as to result in the excessive awarding of citizenship.  Although advocates of citizenship rights for the children of illegals concede that the Fourteenth Amendment’s authors may not have been thinking about their case when they granted citizenship to those who were subject to American “jurisdiction,” they might have taken this step if they were living now.  But there is no reason, according to Anton, to ascribe views to people in the past because someone at this moment holds certain convictions.

Anton shows the marks of his West Coast Straussian education in how he frames his political theoretical arguments.  As a point of information, he took a graduate degree at Claremont under Harry Jaffa, and the article being discussed was published in the West Coast Straussian flagship publication Claremont Review.  According to this persuasion, the United States was founded on natural rights principles, from whence derive our moral right to exist and our guide for interpreting the Constitution.  Citizenship must therefore be understood in relation to this natural rights doctrine, which finds its most oft-quoted expression in the passage of the Declaration of Independence about God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  This for Jaffaites is the bedrock of the regime set up by America’s Founders, and it was vindicated in Lincoln’s struggle against the slaveholding South in the Civil War.

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