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A 14th Amendment primer

President Trump’s pledge to sign an executive order in an effort to abolish the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship has focused attention on the 14th Amendment, which states that anyone born in the country is an American citizen.

The key clause in the 14th Amendment says, ‘‘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.’’

The amendment was ratified after the Civil War in 1868. It nullified a provision of the landmark Dred Scott case (1857), in which the Supreme Court ruled that blacks could never be US citizens.


Legal scholars say the push for the 14th Amendment originated before the Civil War, amid debate about the rights of free blacks.

At the time, free blacks were “building families, building communities, are part of the engines of economic prosperity in the country, but really occupy an ambiguous status before the Constitution,” Martha Jones, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who has studied the amendment, told National Public Radio. “They are clear that what they aim for, what they aspire to, is birthright citizenship, a guarantee that they are permanent members of the body politic.’’

Southern states resisted passage, but a Republican-controlled Congress required them to ratify the measure as a condition of regaining federal representation. On July 9, 1868, Louisiana and South Carolina voted to ratify the 14th Amendment, ensuring the necessary two-thirds majority.

The amendment states that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

By directly mentioning the role of the states, the 14th Amendment greatly expanded the protection of civil rights to all Americans. It is cited in more litigation than any other amendment.


Legal scholars say an executive order ending birthright citizenship would not stand up to constitutional scrutiny.

“The idea that the president has the power to end birthright citizenship, plainly protected by Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, by executive order is preposterous,” said Michael Klarman, a professor at Harvard Law School. “Constitutional scholars who agree about little else have agreed about this for over a century.”

“That the president’s lawyers don’t believe he has this power either is evident in the fact that he didn’t make the proposal for the first 20 months of his presidency. This is an election tactic to prove his toughness on immigration to his base. Like most of Trump’s immigration policies and proposals, it is shameful,” Klarman said.

Sources: Associated Press; Library of Congress; Globe reports