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Smooth Demagogue

Typically, it takes ⅔ of Congress and ¾ of state legislatures to amend the Constitution; Vivek Ramaswamy decided to skip the hassle.

Fourteenth Amendment, Section 1, Clause 1:

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.


At last night's GOP debate, Vivek Ramaswamy showcased his flair for oratory eloquence, even if, perhaps, not his aptitude for constitutional understanding. He announced with gravitas, “I favor ending birthright citizenship for the kids of illegal immigrants in this country.” Then, in a move reminiscent of a student who proudly answers a question in class only to get it wrong, he stated, “Now, the left will howl about the Constitution and the 14th Amendment. The difference between me and them is I’ve actually read the 14th amendment.”

To prove it, he did what most people do after bragging that they’ve read the Constitution –– misquote it. Ramaswamy's confidence would be admirable if it weren't undermined by a fundamental misunderstanding. He claims that no child of a Mexican diplomat in the U.S. enjoys birthright citizenship and equates that child with the child of an illegal immigrant. While drawing loose comparisons might be effective in rhetoric, it's a perilous slope in legal matters.

Vivek wants to connect his nativist approach to a constitutional interpretation espoused only by lawyers on the fringes. John Eastman, the Claremont Institute lawyer who tried to overturn the 2020 election, has argued that the 14th amendment prohibits Kamala Harris from serving as VP because her parents are immigrants. Adding to the confusion is that Vivek mentioned on NBC that at the time of his birth, neither of his parents were citizens –– implying he benefited from the birthright citizenship he now wants to abolish. It's seemingly consistent for a candidate who didn't vote in a presidential election until his 30s, yet wants to stop people younger than 25 from voting.

Vivek’s misinterpretation becomes glaringly evident when one revisits the case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark. Ark, an American by birth but of Chinese heritage, was denied re-entry into his homeland, the U.S., under the shadow of his parents' nationality. The court declared Ark a U.S. citizen by birthright. Why? Because he was born here and wasn't a child of foreign diplomats or officials from China. Seems straightforward enough.

A deep dive into the 14th Amendment clarifies that anyone “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” is a U.S. resident. In layman’s terms, this includes anyone who has to follow U.S. laws—with the rare exception of a diplomat’s child and some specific cases of Native Americans.

Ramaswamy would perhaps benefit from a more in-depth study session on this topic, as the "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" debate was settled long ago. The framers of the 14th Amendment, in their debates, expressed a clear intent to grant citizenship to all born on U.S. soil, irrespective of their parents' heritage or nationality.

During discussions on the ratification, Sen. Edgar Cowan from Pennsylvania voiced his reservations about the birthright-citizenship proposal, posing the question, “Is the child of a Gypsy born in Pennsylvania a citizen?” Further, he queried, “Is it proposed that the people of California are to remain quiescent while they are overrun by a flood of immigration of the Mongol race?” Sen. John Conness of California answered that the children of these immigrants “shall be citizens” and he was “entirely ready to accept the provision proposed in this constitutional amendment.”

While the Wong Kim Ark case specifically examined a child born to legal residents, it's imperative to note that anyone subject to U.S. laws, including those termed as “illegal aliens,” is under U.S. jurisdiction. The very terminology “illegal” implies their subjection to U.S. laws.

Thankfully, the 14th Amendment solidified citizenship beyond the whims of political gamesmanship of people like Vivek.


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