Donald Trump and other GOP candidates want to radically alter a 150-year-old cornerstone of American citizenship

When the famous immigration hawk Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) proposed a bill to end so-called “birthright citizenship,” just 27 far-right Republican members of the House of Representatives signed on as co-sponsors.

The bill, and the issue, got little traction, however. Seven months later, enter Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump.

Since the real-estate magnate unveiled his official immigration-reform plan on Sunday, at least four Republican candidates have followed him on one of his more controversial proposals: ending birthright citizenship, the constitutional right that automatically grants American citizenship to anyone born in the US.

“Donald Trump has provided the opening,” said Dan Stein, the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Despite being written off by pundits and political observers as an unserious candidate with little chance at winning the presidency, Donald Trump is undoubtedly helping to set the agenda for Republican candidates. And he has continually brought one issue in particular into the spotlight: Immigration.

Crafted with the help of one of the most conservative members of the Senate, Trump’s immigration proposal is full of red meat that that has until this point been largely advocated by anti-illegal immigration groups — not presidential candidates.

Perhaps the most radical change in the plan, however, is the one aimed at ending the concept of “birthright citizenship” — overturning a key concept of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.

Almost immediately after Trump released his plan, multiple Republican presidential candidates — many of whom are hoping to steal some of Trump’s current supporters if he eventually flames out — came out in favour of ending birthright citizenship for children of immigrants living in the country illegally.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) both said they were in favour of ending birthright citizenship. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), no fan of Trump, in an interview on CNN decried “birth tourism” and said that he would like to see the policy of birthright citizenship ended.

They join Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) who have all expressed varying degrees of support for changing the 14th Amendment in the past.

The renewed enthusiasm around the idea has the potential to put Republicans in a politically perilous position, one presidential election cycle after its nominee, Mitt Romney, was walloped by 45 points among Latino voters against President Barack Obama.

Democrats and pro-immigration reform activists have been quick to condemn the idea, claiming that changing the concept of birthright citizenship would alter the founding idea of the US as a immigrant-friendly country.

“It would be a constitutional change that would really alter how we view ourselves as a nation and how we’ve thought about what it means to belong,” Melissa Keaney, a staff-attorney at the pro-reform National Immigration Law Center, told Business Insider.

“It’s a radical idea that’s seeming less radical because it’s being talked about among” numerous Republican candidates, Keaney added.

Ted cruz immigrationJonathan ErnstU.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) (R) embraces Laura Wilkerson (L) after her testimony about the murder of her son Josh Wilkerson

‘Deeply seeded, basically racist intentions’

Trump’s support has brought renewed attention to the issue. But birthright citizenship has been debated by policy makers for a long time.

Though it’s been accepted since the United States’ founding, birthright citizenship was clarified with the ratification of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1868. The amendment made it clear that slaves their descendants were US citizens.

The debate has gained and lost momentum over the past several decades, but anti-illegal immigration advocates have long maintained that the amendment has become outdated — and that it’s now ripe for exploitation.

“When this thing was drafted, you’d be lucky to meet someone who was more than 30 miles away from where you were living,” Stein, the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told Business Insider.

“Today’s erroneous interpretation of the 14th Amendment is defeating the operation of US immigration controls. It is trumping the legislative intent of the statutes, it is rewarding illegal immigration and making the laws unenforceable,” he added.

Immigrant advocates disagree. They point to coded terms like “anchor babies” and “birth tourism” by those who advocate changing the amendment as thinly veiled racist slights.

“It’s pretty gross, and underlying are deeply-seeded, basically racist intentions,” Keaney told Business Insider.

Added Laura Epstein, a spokeswoman for the progressive group People for the American Way: “Clearly, their support for this indefensible policy shows that Republicans are more concerned with pandering to their anti-immigrant base than they are with producing real policy ideas to fix our broken immigration system.”

JindalNati HarnikRepublican presidential candidate, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa

Despite momentum on the right, it seems unlikely that the renewed vigour will produce serious results.

Legal experts contend that the Supreme Court has left little ambiguity about the fact that individuals born in the US are entitled to citizenship. Any effort to change that would likely have to include a constitutional amendment, which would be impossible to accomplish without an overwhelming bipartisan mandate. It requires a two-thirds “supermajority” in Congress, plus ratification from three-fourths of the states.

As NPR has reported, the US is one of the only countries grants automatic citizenship based on if a person is born in the country. Most instead grant citizenship based on lineage, a idea that resonates strongly with conservative-leaning immigration activists in the US.

Immigration advocates also say that ending birthright citizenship would cause a host of problems. Keaney said that ending birthright citizenship would essentially render thousands of would-be citizens stateless, or at least leave them in an international legal limbo.

“What is your solution for dealing with this, for these individuals who would be American in every single way, knowing no other place other than the United States as home, speaking no language other than English?” Keaney said.

‘Lowest form of political buffoonery’

Despite the fact that few political observers believe Trump will will ultimately win the Republican nomination, he has had overwhelming success in bringing controversial immigration ideas and solutions to the center of the conversation in the Republican primary.

“Donald Trump has provided the opening opportunity to really starting having meaningful conversation that involves tough decisions,” Stein said.

Scott walkerJim YoungU.S. Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker raises a glass of beer during a campaign stop at the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago

Earlier this summer, Trump was one of the first major candidates to speak out against “sanctuary cities,” an umbrella term that refers to local governments that do not comply with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement orders to indefinitely detain suspected immigrants without probable cause.

But while the Republican push to de-fund sanctuary cities enjoys fairly broad support in the polls and is somewhat politically safe, support for amending the constitution or ending birthright citizenship is much more politically dubious.

The last major polls on the subject, taken in 2010, show that Americans were virtually split on whether to end birthright citizenship.

Democrats have already attempted to capitalise on Republican support for ending birthright citizenship.

“Criminalizing children — let alone citizen children born to immigrant parents — is the lowest form of political buffoonery … even for the GOP,” Pablo Manriquez, the director of Hispanic Media for the Democratic National Committee, told Business Insider.

And several Republican candidates who are considered to be serious contenders if they win the nomination have all hesitated to come out strongly against birthright citizenship.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) said that he would not support repealing the 14th Amendment. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) also dismissed the question, saying that there are “10 things I would change in the Constitution with a magic wand.”

And although Walker initially said that he supported ending birthright citizenship, he appeared to steer clear of that outright stance when pressed later by reporters in Iowa. In a subsequent email to Business Insider, a Walker spokeswoman suggested that enforcing existing laws and “addressing the root problems” of illegal immigration would “end the birthright citizenship problem.”

Said the spokeswoman: “We have to enforce the laws, keep people from coming here illegally, enforce e-verify to stop the jobs magnet, and by addressing the root problems we will end the birthright citizenship problem.”

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