WASHINGTON -- In the fall of 2010, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the most hawkish anti-immigrant voices in Congress, launched a legislative campaign to end the scourge of "anchor babies," as he called them.
The target was the 14th Amendment, which grants everyone born in the United States of America the right of citizenship. The Iowa Republican saw something more nefarious: a scheme by those outside the country (Hispanics, specifically) to get a foothold in the country by coming here and having a child. And so he debuted a bill to end birthright citizenship, which he has continued to introduce in subsequent sessions.
It was highly controversial then and remains so. The latest version, introduced in the 114th Congress, has just 27 co-sponsors.
But the push does have support in the high ranks of the Republican Party. And if this week is any indication, it may be on the path toward becoming a part of the GOP's immigration platform.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich said recently that he didn't think the party needed to go that far in trying to crack down on illegal immigration. But during his run for governor in 2010, according to the Columbus Dispatch, he reiterated his longtime support for ending birthright citizenship.
When Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul first ran for the Senate in 2010, he said he didn't "think the 14th Amendment was meant to apply to illegal aliens." He has since pushed for a constitutional amendment. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has said the issue needs to be re-examined as well.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has also stated his support for altering the 14th Amendment. In a column this May debuting his immigration policy, the 2012 Republican primary runner-up wrote the following:
Other enticements to illegal immigration, such as birthright citizenship, should be ended. Only children born on American soil where at least one parent is a citizen or resident aliens is automatically a U.S. citizen. Of developed countries other than the United States, only Canada has birthright citizenship.
And on Monday night, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal joined the debate, tweeting, "We need to end birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants."
Even South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a longtime supporter of immigration reform, has called for a consideration of a change in the Constitution because he believes immigrants will simply "drop and leave" their kids in this country.
Taken together, that's a solid chunk of the Republican field. And for a political party desperately trying to improve its standing with Hispanic and other minority voters, it could portend a damaging bend toward nativism.
That's because denying certain groups of people birthright citizenship rights is something the country hasn't done since the days of slavery. As former U.S. Solicitor General Walter Dellinger explained, birthright citizenship was common law in America from the founding of the country. But in 1857, the Supreme Court suspended that privilege in its infamous Dred Scott ruling, deciding that no person of African ancestry -- whether slave or free -- could ever become a citizen of the United States. The country eventually ratified the 14th Amendment in 1868.
Paul in 2010 argued that the right of citizenship upon birth was not intended to be extended beyond children of slaves. But that has never been the widespread constitutional interpretation. Indeed, several other Republican candidates for president this year have continued to support maintaining the status quo, including former Hewlett Packard president Carly Fiorina and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Former Arkansas Gov Mike Huckabee said in the past that he opposes changing the law. An aide to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio pointed the Huffington Post to a 2010 article in which he too opposed changing the law. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, has largely avoided taking a position on the issue. His campaign did not return a request for comment.
When this topic was broached in the past, Republican strategists watched with concern, worried the party was offending an increasingly influential voting bloc. That could end up playing out more broadly now that the issue is being debated in the context of the presidential campaign, though not everyone in the GOP ranks believes it will have a demonstrable damaging effect.
"The way you talk to people matters more in many cases than the substance of the discussion, and if these candidates start to present this idea as one that is out there without being harsh and one that should be implemented in the future, that is something that would appeal more reasonably rather than doing it retroactively," said former Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas.) "The public wants a passionate change, whether you are on the left or the right. That is probably why this issue has come up, because a lot of people are frustrated that immigration reform hasn't occurred. But before this presidential campaign, immigration reform didn't even show up in the top five with Hispanic voters. So you wonder how much traction this issue has."
UPDATE: Aug. 19 -- Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) now has jumped into this debate too, coming out on the side of those who want to end birthright citizenship.
This story has been updated to include the positions of Santorum and Jindal.