The Debt Ceiling Vote & Attack on Birthright Citizenship

Heather Cox Richardson

Tonight the House passed a bill to suspend the debt ceiling for two years, enabling the Treasury to borrow money to prevent a default. More Democrats than Republicans rallied to the measure, with 165 Democrats and 149 Republicans voting in favor, for a final vote of 314 to 117. Seventy-one Republicans and 46 Democrats opposed the bill. Now the measure heads to the Senate.

The votes revealed a bitter divide in the Republican Party, as the far-right House Freedom Caucus fervently opposed the measure; Representative Chip Roy (R-TX) for example, called it a “turd sandwich.” Florida governor Ron DeSantis also came out against it, saying it leaves the country “careening toward bankruptcy.”

The far right insists the measure does not provide the cuts they demand. Last night’s nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office scoring of the bill offered them ammunition when it said that the additional work requirement imposed on able-bodied people aged 18–54 without dependents to receive food benefits is outweighed by the expansion of those benefits to veterans, unhoused people, and children aging out of foster care. The CBO estimates that the measure will add 78,000 people a month to food assistance programs, adding $2.1 billion in spending over the next ten years.

Despite their fury, though, the far right in the House appears to be backing down from challenging Representative Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) speakership. Their angry news conferences seem mostly to be performances for their base, and to answer them, McCarthy today said on the Fox News Channel that he was creating a “commission” to “look at” cutting the budget that the president “walled off” from cuts, including the mandatory spending on Medicare and Social Security.

But, as Josh Marshall pointed out in Talking Points Memo today, the Republican base no longer seems to care much about fiscal issues. Instead, they are pushing the cultural issues at the heart of illiberal democracy: anti-LGBTQ laws, antiabortion laws, anti-immigration laws.

Former president Trump is making those themes central to his reelection campaign. Yesterday he released a video promising that on “Day One” of a new presidential term, he would issue an executive order that would end birthright citizenship. Our current policy that anyone born in the United States is a citizen, he claims, is “based on a historical myth, and a willful misinterpretation of the law by the open borders advocates.” He promises to make “clear to federal agencies that under the correct interpretation of the law, going forward, the future children of illegal aliens will not receive automatic US citizenship.”

Trump is picking up an idea from his presidential term that immigrants are flocking to the U.S. as “birth tourists” so their children will have dual citizenship, but the estimate from the immigration-restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies that birth tourism accounts for 26,000 of the approximately 3.7 million births in the U.S. each year has been shown to be wildly high. Trump’s attack on birthright citizenship is an attack on immigration itself, echoing people like Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who insists that immigration weakens a nation by diluting its native-born people with outsiders.

Trump’s attack on the idea of birthright citizenship as a “historical myth” is a perversion of our history. It matters. In the nineteenth century, the United States enshrined in its fundamental law the idea that there would not be different levels of citizenship in this country. Although not honored in practice, that idea, and its place in the law, gave those excluded from it the language and the tools to fight for equality. Over time, they have increasingly expanded those included in it.

The Republican Party organized in the 1850s to fight the idea that there should be different classes of Americans based on race—not only Black Americans, but also Irish, Chinese, Mexican, and Indigenous Americans faced discriminatory state laws. Republicans stated explicitly in their 1860 platform that they were “opposed to any change in our naturalization laws or any state legislation by which the rights of citizens hitherto accorded to immigrants from foreign lands shall be abridged or impaired; and in favor of giving a full and efficient protection to the rights of all classes of citizens, whether native or naturalized, both at home and abroad.”

In 1868, after the Civil War had ended the legal system of human enslavement, the American people added to the Constitution the Fourteenth Amendment, whose very first sentence reads: “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.” Congress wrote that sentence to overturn the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that people of African descent “are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.”

The Fourteenth Amendment legally made Black men citizens equal to white men.

But did it include the children of immigrants? In 1882, during a period of racist hysteria, the Chinese Exclusion Act declared that Chinese immigrants could not become citizens. But what about their children who were born in the United States?

Wong Kim Ark was born around 1873, the child of Chinese parents who were merchants in San Francisco. In 1889 he traveled with his parents when they repatriated to China, where he married. He then returned to the U.S., leaving his wife behind, and was readmitted. After another trip to China in 1894, though, customs officials denied him reentry to the U.S. in 1895, claiming he was a Chinese subject because his parents were Chinese.

Wong sued, and his lawsuit was the first to climb all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, thanks to the government’s recognition that with the U.S. in the middle of an immigration boom, the question of birthright citizenship must be addressed. In the 1898 U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark decision, the court held by a vote of 6–2 that Wong was a citizen because he was born in the United States.

That decision has stood ever since, as a majority of Americans have recognized the principle behind the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as the one central to the United States: “that all men are created equal” and that a nation based on that idea draws strength from all of its people. Over time, we have expanded our definition of who is included in that equality.

Now the right wing is trying to contract equality again, excluding many of us from its rights and duties. The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision makes women a separate and lesser class of citizen; anti-LGBTQ legislation denigrates sexual minorities. Trump’s attack on birthright citizenship makes that attack on equality explicit, calling equality a “myth” and attempting to enshrine inequality as the only real theme of our history.

The concept of equality means we all have equal rights. It also means we all owe an equal allegiance to the country and that we all should be equal before the law, principles the former president has reason to dislike.

Today, Katelyn Polantz, Paula Reid, and Kaitlan Collins of CNN broke the story that federal prosecutors have an audio recording of the former president admitting he kept a classified Pentagon document about a potential attack on Iran. The material on the tape, which was recorded at his Bedminster, New Jersey, property and appears to indicate that the document was in his hands, shows that Trump understood he had taken a classified document and that he understood that there were limits to his ability to declassify records.

The recording also appears to suggest that at least one of the documents Trump took when he left office had enormous monetary value. As former Senior Foreign Service member Luis Moreno tweeted: “You can bet that if the TS/SCI dox involved military action against Iran, there would be a couple of countries willing to pay a king’s ransom for it.”

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