- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2018

President Trump said Wednesday he’s still committed to ending birthright citizenship for babies born to immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, but would prefer to go through Congress rather than use an executive order.

That’s a softening of his stance from an interview published Tuesday, where he told Axios, an online political outlet, that he was preparing an executive order to test the boundaries of the Constitution’s definitions of automatic citizenship.

“I’d rather do it through Congress because that’s permanent,” the president told reporters at the White House.

He said he still thinks an executive order possible, but said in a series of tweets that he now expects to push Congress to act on legislation next year.

The president’s suggestion of upending over a century of policy and withholding automatic American citizenship from babies born to some immigrants sent shock waves through the political world this week.

Most lawmakers who spoke on the matter dismissed Mr. Trump’s suggestion out of hand, questioning his grasp of the Constitution and politics.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan was one of those, saying the president would be wrong to use an executive order — exactly the kind of thing Mr. Trump and Republicans chided President Obama for doing — and wrong to say the Constitution isn’t settled on the question of birthright citizenship.

Others were harsher, calling the president racist for targeting what he said was part of a broader problem of illegal immigration.

But not everyone was dismissive.

Sen. Joe Donnelly, an Indiana Democrat in a tight re-election race, said he was open to legislation.

Mr. Trump lashed out at Mr. Ryan, telling him he “knows nothing about” the issue and urging him to focus on the midterm elections rather than clashing with the White House.

“Our new Republican majority will work on this,” the president vowed, again signaling congressional action instead of an executive order.

The 14th Amendment assigns automatic citizenship to those born “born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” The key question is what it means to be “subject to the jurisdiction.”

The Supreme Court ruled in a key 1898 case that includes children of noncitizens in general. While most legal scholars say that decision likely covers births to immigrants who live in the U.S. illegally, but Supreme Court has never ruled squarely on an immigration case.

Still, under current policy, those children are granted citizenship.

A number of bills have been introduced in Congress over the years to reverse that policy for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally but none have passed. Were one to clear Congress and be signed into law, it would create a test for the Supreme Court.

Mr. Trump, though, is the first president to suggest attacking the issue himself through an executive order, which is far less powerful than a law.

The president acknowledged it was a weaker strategy, saying Wednesday that a future president could easily overturn it, as he himself has done to some of Mr. Obama’s executive actions.

Still, Mr. Trump had some admiration for Mr. Obama. “If he can do DACA, we can do this by executive order,” he said.

That’s markedly different than during the 2016 campaign, when Mr. Trump called Mr. Obama’s DACA policy for “Dreamers” and a similar plan for parents “illegal executive amnesties.” He said Mr. Obama “defied federal law and the Constitution” in issuing them.

Mr. Trump on Wednesday pointed to former Sen. Harry Reid, the one-time Democratic Party floor leader, who in 1993 called for ending birthright citizenship as part of a crackdown on immigrants who live in the U.S. illegally.

“Harry Reid, when he was sane, agreed with us on birthright citizenship!” the president tweeted.

Mr. Reid, in a statement Wednesday, called his 1993 proposal “a mistake.”

“After I proposed that awful bill, my wife Landra immediately sat me down and said, ‘Harry, what are you doing, don’t you know that my father is an immigrant?’ She set me straight,” Mr. Reid said.

“This president wants to destroy not build, to stoke hatred instead of unify. He can tweet whatever he wants while he sits around watching TV, but he is profoundly wrong,” the former senator added.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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