Why Trump’s Threats Against Birthright Citizenship Are So Dangerous

This week President Trump promised to undo birthright citizenship with an executive order.

The savvy take on this is that 1) it’s a cynical ploy to rile up his base and turn the conversation away from the ways his movement has legitimized the conspiracy theories that motivated a fatal shooting at a synagogue and the separate attempted assassination of many of Trump’s enemies last week, and 2) there’s no way he could actually do it.

That was my initial reaction as well. But even if Trump never actually signs an executive order, merely talking about it is corrosive not just to immigrant communities but to US democracy itself. And I can’t dismiss the idea that it will happen.

When Trump said he’d ban Muslims from entering the country, few thought it would happen. Even his supporters famously said Trump should be taken “seriously but not literally.” When Trump passed an executive order last year banning people from seven predominately Muslim countries from entering the US, people realized he was being pretty literal, but still didn’t think he’d get away with it: the ban was clearly a violation of the First Amendment, not to mention a gross overreach of executive power. Yet this year the Supreme Court upheld a slightly toned down version of the ban.

Birthright citizenship is more cut and dry than the Muslim ban, or at least it should be. The 14th Amendment was created to reverse the Dred Scott decision and was upheld in the Wong Kim Ark decision in 1898. The amendment leaves little room for interpretation. But these are extraordinary times, and the court has made 180-degree pivots before, on the Second Amendment for example. The Republican party has already proved that it has little interest in keeping Trump in check, especially when it serves their interests not to. After Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s extraordinarily partisan outburst during the Senate hearing, it wouldn’t be surprising if he ruled in favor of not only disenfranchising but stripping the citizenship entirely of likely Democratic voters. I’d not be surprised if his fellow conservatives on the bench followed suit.

So no, I don’t see Trump’s promise to overturn birthright citizenship as an empty threat. And even if it, is it’s still remarkably dangerous. Birthright citizenship has been a target for the right for decades, showing up as a talking point for so-called “constitutionalist” and former alt-right darling Ron Paul. But it was always a non-starter. Senator Lindsey Graham’s previous proposal to end birthright citizenship went nowhere.

With a single interview, Trump has already managed to turn law that’s been settled for more than a century into a matter of public debate. By merely making the claim that birthright citizenship could and ought to be overturned, he’s moved the idea from the white nationalist fringes into the mainstream. Graham has already promised new anti-birthright legislation, and you can expect more GOP lawmakers to pile on as the Republican base, emboldened by Trump, demand action.

Trump’s comments don’t just distract from the national conversation about his culpability in the rise of hate crimes since he took office. They increase his culpability, as they give further ammunition to extremists who use the administration’s lies to justify their violence.

The comments are in and of themselves an attack on the wellbeing on the immigrant community. ICE already has a denaturalization task force seeking to overturn the citizenship of many who have already gone through the naturalization process. The attack on birthright citizenship compounds the fear, uncertainty, and doubt immigrant families will face until all of this is resolved in court. These efforts to undermine any sense of stability that immigrants and their children may have is yet another example of the cruelty that’s become the hallmark of this administration.

The trouble extends beyond the issue at hand. Trump claimed unilateral authority to alter the Constitution. In the same way that he is shoving open the Overton window on birthright citizenship, he is also, more subtly, opening it on the topic of whether he ought to have the power of a dictator. In other words, he is normalizing the growing anti-democratic sentiment on the right. If Trump’s efforts to overturn birthright citizenship fail, he’s already planted the seeds in the minds of his base that this ability to change the Constitution should be his, and that any opposition must be illegitimate. This aspect of his statements is less remarked on, perhaps because Trump has so often transgressed democratic norms and questioned the legitimacy of democratic institutions that this more subtle maneuver seems to pale in comparison. But it’s actually one of the most dangerous claims he’s made yet.

Now is the time to reject that sentiment and send a clear message that Trump doesn’t, shouldn’t, and never will have the power to subvert democracy.