Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee, a tea party favorite, got his hackles raised this week by a fictional news anchor’s comments about “anchor babies” on last Sunday’s episode of HBO’s drama The Newsroom.
In Sunday’s episode, actor Jeff Daniels’ news anchor character Will McAvoy interviews a stand-in for former Utah Republican Senator Bob Bennett, defeated by Lee and fellow tea party Republicans in 2010. During the faux interview, McAvoy says that Lee supported repealing the 14th Amendment to prevent immigrants from having “anchor babies” in the U.S., which Lee claims is not technically true. He also characterizes Bennett’s loss as having happened in his “primary race,” which Lee points out that he bested Bennett at the state GOP convention.
Lee’s office told The Salt Lake Tribune that the show was “especially egregious and deserves to be corrected.” Spokesperson Brian Phillips also reportedly claimed that Lee has personally phoned HBO to complain about the errors.
But, while Lee did not support an outright “repeal” of the 14th Amendment, he repeatedly said that it should be fundamentally altered to remove birthright citizenship for people whose parents are not citizens themselves.
Responding to a question about “anchor babies” at an event in Layton, Utah on May 27, 2010, Lee specifically said he favored a bill called The Birthright Citizenship Act, which would have simply changed the legal definition of citizenship rather than amending the Constitution itself. After that bill failed to pass in 2010, the newly-minuted Sen. Lee became one of the first co-sponsors of Sen. David Vitter’s (R-LA) reintroduction of it in the Senate in 2011, which proponents again pitched as a repeal of birthright citizenship.
As a candidate for U.S. Senate who preached total constitutional adherence, CNN stated directly that Lee “advocated some breathtaking changes to the Constitution,” including a repeal of birthright citizenship. Proponents like some on Fox News also described the legislation as a “repeal” of birthright citizenship. Even The Washington Post said that Republicans were considering “whether the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution ought to be repealed, refined or left alone.”
The 14th Amendment was passed after the Civil War as a direct rebuke to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which declared that African-American slaves and their descendants were not citizens even if they were born in the United States. Ending birthright citizenship by any legislative means would be repealing the intent of the amendment.
Considering that Section 1 of the 14th Amendment is, in part, dedicated to guaranteeing the precise thing Lee wants to eliminate, calling it a “repeal” is only wrong on very narrow technical grounds. Amending the Constitution to achieve Lee’s preferred results would require a two-thirds supermajority vote by both houses of Congress, the President’s signature and the ratification of three-quarters of the states — a much more difficult process than simply passing a bill as Lee prefers. But Lee’s favored course of action, while easier to accomplish, is less likely to withstand scrutiny by the courts, given that it would fundamentally contradict the Constitution.
This video of Lee’s comments on birthright citizenship was published to YouTube on May 27, 2010.