Donald Trump released a sweeping, point-by-point anti-immigration plan on Sunday. Among other things, it proposes forcing Mexico to pay for a new border wall and tripling the number of agents patrolling the southern border of the United States.
Mr. Trump frames this plan as a defense of the nation’s existing legal order. “America will only be great as long as America remains a nation of laws that lives according to the Constitution,” the plan reads.
But what the proposal doesn’t say is that its full implementation would require changing the Constitution, a process that’s pretty much impossible given the current nature of the US political divide.
Trump’s not alone here, by the way. Most of the other presidential hopefuls, both Republican and Democratic, are pushing policies that would require constitutional amendments. Sometimes they admit this, sometimes they don’t. The key point for voters to remember is this: That’s not happening. Constitutional amendments are a dead parrot. When candidates bring them up or promote Constitution-level change, they’re generally advertising their values, as opposed to talking about stuff that might occur in the real world.
Right, back to The Donald. One of the biggest things his new immigration plan calls for is the elimination of birthright citizenship – the policy whereby every child born on US soil becomes a US citizen.
“This remains the biggest magnet for illegal immigration,” the Trump paper says.
Nor is birthright citizenship under such circumstances popular, argue Trump and other anti-immigration activists. A Rasmussen poll from 2011 found that it was opposed by 61 percent of respondents.
The problem here is that, unpopular or not, birthright citizenship is rooted in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. “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,” runs the language. That’s pretty direct.
The president can’t change that by executive order. Congress can’t pass legislation changing it. Passage of a new constitutional amendment would change it – and that would require a two-thirds “aye” vote in both House and Senate, plus the approval of the legislatures of three-quarters of the 50 states.
In today’s polarized political environment, it is hard to envision that happening for anything remotely controversial. (Yes, it’s technically possible for the nation to simply call for another constitutional convention, but that’s even more unlikely.) Blue states and/or states with large Hispanic populations would never go for the birthright change.
Now, Trump’s not alone here. A number of the other GOP hopefuls have expressed their opposition to birthright citizenship. Chris Christie, for instance, said last week that is should be “reexamined." Rand Paul has said it “should stop," and Lindsey Graham says birthright citizenship is “a mistake."
Dead parrot. Dead parrot. Dead parrot.
As for other subjects, Senator Paul in the past has pushed a constitutional amendment to ban Congress from voting for special treatment for itself. Ted Cruz wants an amendment requiring Washington to balance the budget. Scott Walker proposes a constitutional amendment that would return to states the power to determine whether gay marriage is legal within their boundaries.
Hillary Clinton, for her part, talks often about the need to “get unaccountable money out” of the US political system. But US Supreme Court rulings have in essence made that an issue of constitutional level. Mrs. Clinton acknowledges this: The second part of her stump sentence on controlling “unaccountable money” is, “even if it takes a constitutional amendment."
Are the candidates misleading voters here? After all, they’re eliding the difficulty of actually doing the stuff they’re proposing.
We’d say ... not really. Given the state of the partisan divide, enacting any new policy, even things that require simple legislation, will be tough for the next president. Should they propose nothing?
Also, pushing big things that would require constitutional change is a way for candidates to advertise what kind of president they want to be. It’s a way of promoting their values – and values may be more important to voters than the details of 10-point plans.
Trump himself has a “surprisingly savvy” view of this aspect of US politics, according to Washington Post reporter Philip Bump. In Iowa this weekend, Trump told a reporter he thinks it’s the media that demands policy papers, not voters. In real life, detailed 14-point plans get thrown out the window as soon as negotiations start, Trump added.
Voters back the whole candidate, not individual polices, The Donald said.
As to the details of his policy proposals, “I don’t think the people care. I think they trust me. I think they know I’m going to make good deals for them,” said Trump.