Congress

Speaker Ryan: ‘You cannot end birthright citizenship with an executive order’


Paul Ryan

House Speaker Paul Ryan said that the president “obviously cannot do that” in an interview with Kentucky talk radio station WVLK. | Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

House Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday broke with President Donald Trump on whether an executive order could deny a constitutional guarantee of citizenship to babies born in the U.S. to noncitizen parents.

But despite Ryan’s stern rebuttal to the president, the idea of limiting birthright citizenship still has significant cache among congressional Republicans, even if they aren’t quite sure how to undo a constitutional guarantee stemming from the 14th Amendment.

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Trump told Axios in an interview released Tuesday that the White House counsel had advised him that there was legal standing to terminate birthright citizenship, and Vice President Mike Pence confirmed that the administration was looking into using executive action as well.

Ryan said that the president “obviously cannot do that” in an interview with Kentucky talk radio station WVLK.

“You cannot end birthright citizenship with an executive order,” he said. “As a conservative, I’m a believer in following the plain text of the Constitution, and I think in this case the 14th Amendment is pretty clear, and that would involve a very, very lengthy constitutional process. But where we obviously totally agree with the president is getting at the root issue here, which is unchecked illegal immigration.”

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), however, said because court challenges will hamstring Trump, “Congress would have to get involved … it is something we’ll be looking at.”

“Clearly we need to do something in terms of people who are here and are citizens vs. people who just show up. And all of a sudden parents that have never really lived here are just trying to get in here for that reason. So we’ve got to find a way to address this,” Hoeven said in an interview.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did not have an immediate comment. Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said that while birthright citizenship for permanent residents is “settled law,” there is “a debate among legal scholars about whether that right extends to the children of illegal immigrants.” Grassley added that the issue is one that Congress should lead on.

McConnell’s chief deputy, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, told reporters in Houston that birthright citizenship for the children of immigrants who entered illegally is “a symptom of a bigger problem. And my position on immigration is pretty simple: legal immigration is good, illegal immigration is bad.”

He said that the best way for Congress to take on immigration reform is to deal with it in the context of the broader immigration issue, though he declined to break with the president as sharply as Ryan did.

“We need less posturing and less rhetoric on this and more solutions. I know the president is enormously frustrated, and I am frustrated too, about our inability to work together on a bipartisan basis to solve the underlying problem, but that is what I think we have to do,” Cornyn said.

The Senate failed earlier this year to deal with the expired status of young immigrants granted protections by President Barack Obama. There has been little momentum in Congress in recent months to do any broad immigration reform.

Rather than making a policy proposal that could be instituted, Democrats said Trump was trying to divide the country ahead of the midterms and change the subject from recent mass shootings and attempted mail bombings. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who is poised to become House Judiciary Committee chairman if Democrats win the House, called Trump’s plans the “desperate act of a desperate man who is constantly seeking to divide and distract us.”

“Trump’s action isn’t about what’s good or moral or legal or even effective. It’s just President Trump’s latest attempt to fuel anger in order to win votes,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.). “He knows xenophobia helps him win elections. But xenophobia also creates tension and increases the risk of violence.”

Indeed, many Republican candidates are running on platforms accusing their opponents of supporting “open borders,” particularly in Senate races held in deep red territory. It’s a strategy the GOP has increasingly embraced as next week’s midterm elections approach.

And even if some Republicans would like to change the Constitution or laws in a way that leads to fewer immigrants crossing the border illegally and having children in the United States, there are few in the GOP who would claim as Trump did that he has the power to change the policy on his own. Pence, however, said that the Supreme Court has never ruled on whether the 14th Amendment “applies specifically to people who are in the country illegally.”

Ryan pointed out that Republicans objected when former President Barack Obama tried to use executive orders to make immigration policy, and that the same objection applied in this situation. He did say that at a minimum the change to the policy “would have to be statutory through Congress.”

Amending the constitution or passing laws to limit birthright citizenship is popular among congressional Republicans, particularly those that are close to the president even though it would be incredibly difficult to do. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called it “absurd policy” and said he will soon introduce a bill designed after Trump’s executive order.

“This policy is a magnet for illegal immigration, out of the mainstream of the developed world, and needs to come to an end,” said Graham, one of Republicans’ most persistent immigration reform advocates.

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