George Will, columnist for the Washington Post, is an intelligent man. His latest column raises an interesting point of constitutional law. It also demonstrates perhaps the fundamental failure of newspapers in furthering real debate on political topics: a tendency to focus on the minutia of issues instead of providing perspective.

The 14th Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees citizenship only to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof”. Will argues that illegal immigrants are not fully “subject to the jurisdiction” of the US, and thus their children have no constitutional right to citizenship. As a point of law, there is a reasoned argument to be made on both sides.

The larger debate in which Will does not directly engage concerns what the implications of denying citizenship to immigrants would be. Even if the US had the right to do it, restricting birthright citizenship to children of current citizens would be a formula for a population of poor hispanic migrants ruled by a separate class of full citizens. This latter group would be relatively rich, white, old, and (even in absolute terms) shrinking—eventually becoming a minority. It’s a formula for class warfare.

Ignoring possible consequences and addressing narrow matters of law is not itself dishonest. Misrepresenting the historical context of law is. Will writes of the 14th amendment:

The authors and ratifiers could not have intended birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants because in 1868 there were and never had been any illegal immigrants because no law ever had restricted immigration.

Will goes on for six more paragraphs elaborating historical interpretations of this law as applied to immigrants. As far as I know, everything he says is factually true. Yet Will’s account omits one fairly large detail—a detail that could not possibly have escaped his notice and could not possibly be considered irrelevant. The 14th Amendment was written as a direct rebuttal to the Dred Scott decision which denied citizenship to the children of slaves.

I’m sure that my summary of the situation is at best a gross simplification; there may in fact be a solid argument that there were also other motivations for the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment. Maybe I could be convinced that in the full historical context Will’s interpretation is reasonable. But:

Focusing on minor details and omitting any mention of major points that would be raised by anyone arguing the other side of an issue is not honest. It’s not even good debate. It’s an attempt to prey on the ignorance of a captive audience. It’s an attempt to get opponents to waste their limited access to the public’s attention on a trivial rebuttal, no better than trolling on the internet. Worst, it’s an attempt to burnish intellectual credentials by jumping to the esoteric instead of tracing a path from the simple and well-known, which fundamentally undermines the role of expertise in guiding public debate.

I’m disappointed in you, George.


I hadn’t realized this when I wrote the above, but if you really did restrict birthright citizenship to children of current citizens then of course I wouldn’t be a US citizen myself. The fact that I hadn’t noticed this just demonstrates how much I take my identity as an American for granted.

So apparently I’ve got some self-interest on this issue; take that for what you will.