DeSantis' pledge to end birthright citizenship marks a new era for Republicans

He's not the first to demand a challenge to the 14th Amendment — and won't be the last

Ron DeSantis
(Image credit: Photo by Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

When former President Donald Trump ran for office in 2016, he pledged to dramatically overhaul America's immigration policy, cutting the country off from its southern neighbors by means of a "big beautiful wall," and — as he insisted two years into his first term — bypassing the 14th Amendment's guarantee of birthright citizenship "just with an executive order." Now, as Trump plows ahead with his third bid for the White House, that familiar call to end birthright citizenship has once again risen as a prospective rallying cry for a Republican party increasingly defined by hostility to immigration. This time, however, that call isn't only coming from Trump, but from his chief GOP rival for the party's 2024 presidential nomination: Ron DeSantis.

This week, DeSantis unveiled his hard-line "No Excuses" immigration platform, pledging to "stop the invasion" of undocumented immigrants into the United States by way of "the Florida Blueprint" — a reoccurring theme to his campaign, in which he's touted his localized accomplishments as Florida's governor to frame his candidacy in broader, national terms. As part of his platform, DeSantis pledged to "end the idea that the children of illegal aliens are entitled to birthright citizenship if they are born in the United States." Arguing that birthright citizenship is "inconsistent with the original understanding of the 14th Amendment," he promised to "force the courts and Congress to finally address this failed policy."

Speaking on Monday at a campaign stop in Texas, DeSantis explained that he was "really motivated to bring this issue to a conclusion" after spending years hearing "Republicans and Democrats always chirping" without acting. The line, an implicit dig against Trump's failures, is an acknowledgment of sorts that neither DeSantis, nor Trump, or most politicians that came before, invented the concept of doing away with birthright citizenship. However, it also marks a new era for Republicans — The push against the 14th Amendment is no longer relegated to a grumbling nationalist fringe, or an outlying figure like Trump, but has now become a central tenet for the party at large.

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How did conservatives get here?

"Trump's proposal is not really that new," immigration attorney Andy J. Semotiuk wrote in 2018 after Trump first floated his plan to use an executive order to counteract the 14th Amendment. "Republicans have long been bothered by birthright citizenship." In the mid-1990s, Republicans attempted to introduce legislation, and add language to the party platform reflecting their support for laws or even a constitutional amendment assuring that "children born in the United States of parents who are not legally present in the United States or who are not long-term residents are not automatically citizens." Crucially, however, those efforts were tempered by the GOP's own 1996 presidential candidate, Sen. Bob Dole, and his running mate, former Rep. Jack Kemp, who stressed that "If you're born in America, you're an American." That same election, Dole would famously encourage Republicans working to limit their party based on race and religion to seek "exits, which are clearly marked, for you to walk out of."

Trump's 2018 promise — and the years of preceding campaign rhetoric against what he'd described in 2015 as "the biggest magnet for illegal immigration" — was welcomed by a swath of conservative activists ("this issue is going to be front and center and it's not going to go away," one told the Los Angeles Times) and a smattering of GOP governors. But it received considerable and noteworthy pushback from a number of high-profile Republicans as well, including Floridians Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Jeb Bush. "To suggest that people born in this country are not United States citizens because they don't have this in the Constitution, I just reject out of hand," Bush explained.

Is this now mainstream?

DeSantis' announcement this week marked a moment at which the line between "the GOP fringe and the GOP mainstream has blurred to the point that it hardly exists at all," MSNBC's Steve Benen said, comparing the effort to undo birthright citizenship to a broader recalibration of Republican leadership. "Far-right ideas, previously championed by radical figures, have followed a similar trajectory" as the once-fringe Freedom Caucus which now sits at the center of Republican congressional power.

While DeSantis isn't the first Republican to push the end of birthright citizenship, his position in the GOP primary standing makes the proposal all the more notable for exactly that reason. The Texas speech was "just a rehash of all the things I did to have the 'safest and strongest Border in U.S. history,'" Trump himself raged on his Truth Social platform. The sole purpose of the DeSantis stop was "to reiterate the fact that he would do all of the things done by me," Trump added. The Associated Press was slightly less hyperbolic in drawing a similar conclusion, writing that DeSantis' immigration plan "largely mirrors Trump's."

Mirror or not, neither Trump nor DeSantis' plans are likely to succeed — at least, not without significant judicial, legislative, and ultimately constitutional wrangling. What they are, however, is a sign that both top conservative presidential aspirants see attacking the 14th Amendment as a path to electoral victory. "What is significant about the issue is its use as a political tool to mobilize supporters and the president's willingness to employ it despite what many legal authorities would regard as shakey legal grounds for using it," Semotiuk wrote in 2018. He was talking about Trump, and Trump alone here. In 2023, ending birthright citizenship isn't a novel suggestion from a once-in-a-lifetime conservative outlier — it's a standard campaign promise from the heart of the Republican mainstream, with little sign of waning anytime soon.

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Rafi Schwartz

Rafi Schwartz is a Politics Writer with The Week, where he focuses on elections, Congress, and the White House. He was previously a contributing writer with Mic, a senior writer with Splinter News, and the managing editor of Heeb Magazine. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GOOD, The Forward, and elsewhere.

Rafi currently lives in the Twin Cities, where he does not bike, run, or take part in any team sports. He does, however, have a variety of interests, hobbies, and passions.