The Corner

Immigration

Can Trump End Birthright Citizenship by Executive Order?

President Donald Trump speaks at the 91st Annual Future Farmers of America Convention and Expo, in Indianapolis, In., October 27, 2018. (Al Drago/Reuters)

On substance, I believe President Trump is right on birthright citizenship — the 14th Amendment does not require it. I do not believe, however, that the president may change the interpretation of the 14th Amendment, which has been in effect for decades, by executive order, as he is reportedly contemplating.

My friend John Eastman explained why the 14th Amendment does not mandate birthright citizenship in this 2015 New York Times op-ed. In a nutshell, the Amendment states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” The highlighted term, “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” was understood at the time of adoption to mean not owing allegiance to any other sovereign. To take the obvious example, if a child is born in France to a married couple who are both American citizens, the child is an American citizen.

I won’t rehash the arguments on both sides. With due respect to our friend Dan McLaughlin (see here), I think Professor Eastman has the better of the argument. As I have observed before, and as we editorialized when Donald Trump was a candidate (here), this is a very charged issue, and it is entirely foreseeable that the Supreme Court (to say nothing of the lower federal courts teeming with Obama appointees) would construe the term jurisdiction differently from what it meant when the 14th Amendment was ratified.

For today, the more narrow question is: Assuming arguendo that the 14th Amendment does not require birthright citizenship, is our practice of conferring it merely an executive policy that the president has the power to change by executive order?

I don’t think so.

Again, there are reports that the president may issue such an order. The problem as I see it is twofold. First, the legal landscape is not limited to the 14th Amendment. Congress has enacted a statute, Section 1401 of the immigration and naturalization laws (Title 8, U.S. Code). In pertinent part, it appears merely to codify in statutory law what the 14th Amendment says: included among U.S. citizens is any “person born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” But that means the issue is not just what jurisdiction was understood to mean in 1868 when the 14th Amendment was adopted, but what it meant in 1952, when the statute defining U.S. citizenship was enacted (it has been amended several times since then).

Secondly, even assuming the meaning was the same, Congress’s codification of the 14th Amendment — which it did not need to do — is a strong expression of Congress’s intent to exercise its constitutional authority to set the terms of citizenship.

The president has extremely good lawyers in the White House Counsel’s Office and the Justice Department, and maybe they have told him that the president gets to interpret the term jurisdiction and enforce his understanding of it unless and until Congress or the courts say otherwise. To my mind, however, the president may not unilaterally change an understanding of the law that has been in effect for decades under a duly enacted federal law. Presumably, if Congress did not believe conferring birthright citizenship was consistent with Section 1401, it would have amended the statute.

Moreover, it seems to me that, because Congress has weighed in on citizenship by codifying the 14th Amendment, the courts will swat down any executive order on the ground that it exceeds the president’s authority. That is, the courts will not even have to reach the merits of what jurisdiction means for purposes of the 14th Amendment and Section 1401.

We have seen something like this in an area of more certain executive power. President Bush attempted unilaterally to set up military commissions in wartime under his commander-in-chief authority. Even though there was plenty of precedent supporting this, the Supreme Court invalidated the commissions and told the president he needed Congress’s statutory blessing. (Congress later enacted the Military Commissions Act.)

Consequently, if the president actually issues an executive order changing the birthright-citizenship policy, I doubt the sun will set before an injunction is issued. I am in favor of changing the current understanding of birthright citizenship, but I believe such a change must be done by statute to have any hope of surviving court-scrutiny . . . and even then, I give it less than a 50-50 chance.

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