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Keep GOP hands off the 14th Amendment

By Sophia Nelson, Special to CNN
  • Sophia Nelson: GOP, once progressive, now tone-deaf on race and ethnicity
  • Immigration woes won't be helped by GOP revisiting 14th Amendment, she says
  • GOP helped pass 14th Amendment granting citizenship to those born in U.S.
  • Nelson: Tinkering with Constitution wrong; would alienate blacks, Hispanics

Editor's note: Sophia Nelson is an attorney, political commentator and communications strategist. She is editor-in-chief of Political Intersection blog and author of the forthcoming nonfiction book, "Black.Female.Accomplished.Redefined."

(CNN) -- Every time I think the Republican Party cannot get any more tone-deaf on issues involving race and equal rights, someone in leadership proves me wrong.

In case you missed it, a group of Republican senators -- Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jefferson "Jeff Davis" Sessions of Alabama and Jon Kyl of Arizona -- have decided that we might need to revisit the 14th Amendment's provision granting citizenship to people born in the United States. This development, in response to illegal immigrants whose children are born in the United States, is simply stunning and reckless.

Can anyone seriously argue that the Republican Party has not been hijacked by extremists? Even once-sensible conservatives like Graham have drifted to a hard-right ideology so extreme that people of color, in this case Hispanics, will be hard-pressed to find a home in the GOP.

These calls to revisit and possibly repeal the 14th Amendment's naturalization clause is a very bad sign of things to come on the immigration front, and we should all pay close attention as we head into the 2010 election cycle.

Ironically, if you look at the RNC website "," a timeline shows that the party founded in part by Abraham Lincoln was once very progressive. It points out that a Republican Congress drafted and passed the 14th Amendment without a single Democratic vote. The lead sponsor was a GOP congressman from Ohio.

Boy, have times changed.

The 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868 in the aftermath of the Civil War, granted citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States," including recently freed slaves. The 14th Amendment intended to ensure civil rights to ex-slaves, or as we like to say, "equal protection," to those slaves under the laws.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, about 10.8 million illegal immigrants were living in the United States in January 2009. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that in 2008, 3.8 million illegal immigrants had children who were U.S. citizens.

From the viewpoint of these conservative senators, repealing the citizenship clause could put a very swift end to the practice of people illegally crossing our borders to give birth so their children will be legal citizens of the United States.

But here is what troubles me most as an African-American: Once again, the GOP is clueless to the ramifications of its public policy stances. Even Sen. John McCain, who is in a tough primary fight, has said we should look into the citizenship-by-birth provision.

Tinkering with the 14th Amendment opens the door to further tinkering with the Constitution -- and when it comes to that, we should all take a hard pause.

Like many Americans, I am concerned about the immigration challenge confronting our nation. But revisiting or reviewing the 14th Amendment is the wrong answer.

To the Republican leadership I would simply ask: What are you thinking? How in the world can you believe that this latest stunt will help you broaden your outreach to Hispanics and blacks?

How in the world can a party that did so many things right during its early days in the 19th century -- ended slavery, championed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, started Reconstruction -- end up so lost and monolithic in the 21st?

I would respectfully suggest that leaders in the Republican Party, who want to achieve a governing majority once again in this century, had better get under control, or better yet oust, those members who are playing to the worst of racial fears this fall.

Immigration is a serious problem indeed, but it is not one that will be solved by stripping away the rights of citizenship to those born in the United States.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sophia Nelson.