Kamala Harris is not a vice-presidential running mate who makes me any more excited about the thought of voting for Joe Biden. With Donald Trump reverting to the usual last-ditch stunt of a failing president—trying to impose his agenda by executive order—it doesn’t seem helpful for Democrats to embrace a woman whose own campaign for president was based on all the things she promised to impose by executive order. It’s almost as if Democrats don’t object to a strongman, so long as the strongman (or strongwoman) is someone they like.
Yet I have to admit that as a matter of electoral politics, Harris probably won’t make many people less likely to vote for Biden, and thus she constitutes the safe, “do no harm” choice. Given that this is how Biden himself got the vice-presidential job, it seems appropriate.
Moreover, there is one issue raised by Harris’s candidacy that may seem incidental but which strikes at the heart of the agenda of pro-Trump conservatives—and which her candidacy has the chance to settle decisively.
Kamala Harris is the birthright citizenship candidate.
Senator Harris is a U.S. citizen who is eligible to serve in the highest office in the land because she was born on American soil—and for no other reason.
Harris was born in Oakland, California, to a scientist from India (her mother, Shyamala Gopalan) and an economist from Jamaica (her father, Donald Harris). Neither parent was a U.S. citizen at the time. So Harris cannot claim to be an American jus sanguinis, by “right of blood,” but only jus soli, by “right of soil,” i.e., simply by virtue of having been born here.
That makes her the “anchor baby” candidate, the poster child for “birthright citizenship.”
Why is this important? Because the Trump-era right has made the rejection of birthright citizenship a central tenet of their xenophobic worldview. Trumpist populism appeals to the fear that scary “Third World” immigrants—like, you know, scientists and economists—are overrunning this country and ruining it. And the main mechanism that is drawing them here and diluting the power of us natives born rightwise is birthright citizenship: the old rule, enshrined in the 14th Amendment, that anyone born on U.S. soil is automatically a citizen.
Remember the “Flight 93” argument for Trump? The idea that this was our last chance to charge the cockpit and save America from destruction? The whole thing was a giant screed against immigration centered on the hope that Donald Trump would end birthright citizenship by announcing a unilateral executive re-interpretation of the 14th Amendment.
Under that interpretation, Kamala Harris would not be a citizen of the United States and not eligible to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. And yes, that’s the new “birther” argument that is being offered—in the undead corpse of Newsweek—by the same Flight 93 crowd.
That’s what makes Senator Harris’s selection as Joe Biden’s vice-presidential running mate interesting.
But at some point, the historical and intellectual arguments ultimately give way to the verdict rendered by voters. The case against birthright citizenship is based on the premise that the American people have a collective right to decide who they will allow to become citizens of this country. But if that’s the case, the evidence is pretty compelling what the American people have decided. They have repeatedly backed the concept of birthright citizenship, both as a matter of Supreme Court precedent and as a consistent legal practice.
It looks likely that they are about to ratify that decision again—and definitively—by electing a vice-president who is a birthright citizen.
If Harris does not fundamentally change the electoral calculus, the odds are that she will be the next vice-president of the United States.
So at this point, the likeliest result is that we will soon have a birthright citizen as the vice-president of the United State. And four years later, quite possibly, as president.
A repeated ratification of birthright citizenship by the American voters would, I suspect, put a pretty firm end to this ludicrous debate. If so, it would be one of the few good things to emerge from this era.