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By W. Gardner Selby September 7, 2010

Sen. John Cornyn quoted saying hearings needed on citizenship provision; did he later crawfish?

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn "'crawfishing'" says a headline on an Aug. 30 web post by Tyler's KETK-TV.

It's not describing the Texas senator's vacation plans. Instead, the headline suggests Cornyn backing off on favoring hearings on the constitutional provision entitling anyone born in the United States to citizenship.

We wondered.

The station's report says Cornyn was at a port of entry in Hidalgo, Texas Aug. 27 when he backed off "his earlier support for Congress reviewing birthright citizenship." The report quotes Cornyn saying that taking another look at the Constitution's 14th Amendment amid the national debate over immigration "is going after a symptom rather than the cause in the first place." (A symptom or cause of what, the report did not specify.) Cornyn previously backed calls for a review.

Next, we contacted Cornyn's office, where spokesman Kevin McLaughlin said in an e-mail that the senator wasn't airing a new position. Rather, McLaughlin said, the original report on Cornyn's position, in the Aug. 5 Dallas Morning News, misrepresented Cornyn's willingness to participate in hearings as advocating them.

The News' article describes Cornyn as the latest senator to call for a review of birthright citizenship amid complaints that illegal immigrants have abused that post-Civil War constitutional provision. The story notes that Sen. John Kyl, R-Arizona, had earlier suggested hearings in a TV interview and the Senate minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, subsequently did the same.

"We need to have hearings," Cornyn is quoted saying. "We need to consult constitutional scholars and study what the implications are." Cornyn is the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security.

According to the News article, Cornyn said, "It's certainly within the power of Congress to" make changes either by statute or amending the constitution. But he is also quoted saying, "We need to tread carefully in this area, because we would be changing, frankly, settled law."

McLaughlin said he watched the interview and that Cornyn didn't call for a review of the 14th Amendment but instead responded to the reporter's request for comment on that possibility. The "point (Cornyn) was making was not that he supported or opposed a review. His point was that if any of his colleagues want to change the Constitution, we should proceed with great caution and at least have hearings," McLaughlin said.

We asked if the senator sought a correction or clarification from the newspaper. McLaughlin said not, adding in an e-mail: "They are pointless because papers bury them and no one reads them."

From our review, it looks like the News' article had an impact on other coverage. From early August through Aug. 22, the Hotline, UPI, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and referred to Cornyn as calling for or supporting hearings on birthright citizenship.

Later on the very day of the Morning News' interview, McLaughlin said, Cornyn was in a conference call with reporters and answered a question about changing the 14th Amendment. McLaughlin shared a recording of Cornyn's answer, in which the senator again talked about treading "carefully." He said he'd want to take up the topic in the context of broad immigration reform; there's no mention of his position on holding hearings.

McLaughlin said Cornyn's position was clearly spelled out in an Aug. 12 story in The McAllen Monitor, which quotes Cornyn saying that if members of both parties want to pursue the issue, he'd support hearings at least to air out the social and legal implications. "I would hope that (committees) would hear from a diverse group of people, including legal scholars, advocacy groups and ordinary citizens, including a lot of Texans," Cornyn said in a statement to the newspaper. "We don’t need to amend the Constitution to secure the border and reform a broken immigration system." The same day, the El Paso Times quoted a similar Cornyn statement.

McLaughlin also pointed to an Aug. 27 Associated Press recap of Cornyn's latest remarks. According to the AP, Cornyn backed off his earlier support for Congress taking up birthright citizenship, but also told reporters his new remarks didn't reflect a shift in stance.

Cornyn is quoted saying: "I was asked a question whether I would participate in hearings on the issue. And I said, 'Well, sure, I'm happy to do my job and listen to expert witnesses.' But upon further reflection I really think it is a symptom and not the cause."

Recap: On Aug. 4, Cornyn told the Morning News "we need to have hearings" on the 14th Amendment, consult with scholars and study the issue but also should "tread carefully," a caution he also expressed in response to another reporter's question that day. Later, separate newspaper articles quoted him saying there's no need to amend the Constitution to address comprehensive immigration reform, a position he aired again on his recent trip to the Texas-Mexico border.

Best we can tell, the stated "need" to hold hearings on the amendment wasn't repeated by Cornyn. His mention that he has given it "further reflection" underscores he's not as keen on the idea as he appeared to be in the oft-referenced Morning News' story. Yet Cornyn also hasn't gone so far as to say he's now against hearings.

We rate this a Half Flip on the PolitiFact Texas Flip-o-Meter.

Our Sources

The Associated Press, "Cornyn backs off birthright citizenship debate," Aug. 27, 2010 (accessed Aug. 31, 2010)

Dallas Morning News, news article, "Texas Sen. John Cornyn backs review of 'birthright citizenship,'" Aug. 5, 2010 (accessed Aug. 31, 2010)

El Paso Times, news article, "Some in US push to change automatic citizenship by birth,"Aug. 12, 2010 (accessed Aug. 31, 2010)

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, news article, "Birthright citizenship debate has major implications for DFW," Aug. 22, 2010 (accessed Sept. 3, 2010)

E-mails (excerpted) and interview, Kevin McLaughlin, communications director, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, Aug. 31, 2010 and Sept. 1, 2010

The Hotline, political newsletter, "Anchor Babies Away!," Aug. 5, 2010 (Excerpt, Lexis Nexis search)

KETK-TV, Tyler, Texas, Web post, "Cornyn 'crawfishing' on 14th amendment statement from Earlier," Aug. 30, 2010 (accessed Aug. 30, 2010)

The McAllen Monitor, news article, "Senators' desire to restrict birthright citizenship doesn't sit well with some in Valley," Aug. 12, 2010 (accessed Aug. 31, 2010)

UPI, news article,"Texas mulls fate of immigrant babies," Aug. 8, 2010 (Lexis Nexis search)

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More by W. Gardner Selby

Sen. John Cornyn quoted saying hearings needed on citizenship provision; did he later crawfish?

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