In terms of easily debunkable lies, it would be hard to top President Donald Trump’s statements this week about his ability to overturn birthright citizenship by executive order. Mr. Trump has long parroted right wing complaints about U.S. law that confers citizenship on those born in the United States, regardless of their parents’ immigration status, but until desperation set in on the eve of next week’s midterm election, he had also previously recognized the obvious truth that there was nothing he could do about it. Now, though, with the need to turn out his hard-right base lest his party lose control of one or both chambers of Congress (or, perhaps more pertinently, lest he suffer the ego blow of losing big in an election he has, like everything else, made all about him), he suddenly avers that it is possible to overturn the precedent with mere executive order.
The falsehoods here are thick. Neither an executive order nor an act of Congress could change birthright citizenship because its origin lies in the Constitution, specifically the 14th Amendment, which was passed in the wake of the Civil War to grant citizenship to former slaves and their progeny. Its pertinent part 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.” Senators, in floor debate about the amendment in the 1860s, clearly expressed the intent that it would convey citizenship on all those born in the United States, regardless of who their parents were. In the 1890s, the Supreme Court decided a case in favor of the citizenship of an American-born man of Chinese descent whose parents were not and could not become citizens because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Another Supreme Court case from the 1980s, while not directly addressing the question, treated the citizenship of American-born children of illegal immigrants as a given.
The anti-birthright argument holds that we’ve been reading that sentence wrong for 150 years. They argue that the clause “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” excludes illegal immigrants and, by extension, their children. This is of course nonsense. Illegal immigrants are still subject to American law. They can be prosecuted, jailed and deported, and they still pay taxes. The mainstream understanding is that the phrase refers to diplomats, who are actually not subject to U.S. law.
(As a side note, it's interesting that the same crowd who make much of the parenthetical phrase “and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” in the 14th Amendment seem all too eager to ignore the “well regulated militia” bit in the 2nd.)
Not content with that lie, Mr. Trump followed up with a whopper even by his lofty standards: a contention that no other nation has birthright citizenship. More than 30 countries have the same standards, including both Canada and Mexico.
But our guess as to what will prove the biggest lie here is the idea that President Trump seriously intends to sign such an executive order in the first place. By now, dear readers, it should be clear that Mr. Trump says a lot of stuff about what he has done, what he is doing and what he will do that doesn’t quite pan out. He was being interviewed by Axios for a new HBO series produced by that news site. They asked about birthright citizenship, and President Trump leaped at the opportunity to give them a juicy nugget to pull out right before the election. He has clearly come to believe that his best bet for the midterms is to rile up his anti-immigrant base — how else to explain his declaration that he would send 15,000 U.S. troops to the border to stop a group of about 3,500 migrants who are still weeks away? That’s right, he’s pledging that we would have as many soldiers on the border to stop a rag-tag group of refugees as we do in Afghanistan. Here’s betting that once Tuesday passes, the urgent need to waste taxpayer dollars on that boondoggle will pass too.
And so it is, with the election just days away, we've come to the point that President Trump is lying about his lies. For that, he takes home the crown for yet another Alternative Fact of the Week.