Cause championed by local congressmen grabs GOP leadership support
By EDWARD SIFUENTES
A call to end automatic citizenship for the children of illegal immigrant parents is gaining momentum among leading Republicans in Congress, who recently called for hearings on the subject.
Some North County congressional representatives, who are among the most vocal against illegal immigration, have pushed for the public debate, but the issue seldom received much attention from the party's leadership.
Then last month, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he wanted to have hearings, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he would like to propose a constitutional amendment to prevent illegal immigrants' children from being declared citizens.
With a few exceptions, most children born in the U.S. are considered citizens under the Constitution's 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868. However, some of those who oppose birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants say the 14th Amendment does not cover those children.
The children of foreign diplomats and American Indians did not qualify for citizenship when the amendment was adopted. American Indians were later granted U.S. citizenship.
Some politicians and anti-illegal immigration groups would like to change the amendment, while others say only a federal statute clarifying who is eligible for citizenship is needed.
Pros and cons
Proponents say the change is needed because people are coming to the country to have babies and get government benefits. Some other proponents say it's simply not fair for the children of illegal immigrants and people on tourist visas to receive automatic citizenship.
"They cross the border. They go to an emergency room, have a child and the child is automatically an American citizen," Graham told Fox News recently. "That shouldn't be the case. That attracts people here for all the wrong reasons."
An estimated 340,000 children were born in the U.S. in 2008 to illegal immigrant parents, according to a report released late last month by the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington-based research organization that focuses on the Latino population.
About 700,000 children were born that year to legal immigrant parents, according to the report.
Children of illegal immigrants make up about 8 percent of the 4.3 million children born in 2008, according to the center's analysis of population data.
Reps. Brian Bilbray, R-Solana Beach, and Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, have endorsed legislation to block automatic citizenship for babies whose parents are in the country illegally. Rep. Mary Bono-Mack, R-Palm Springs, through a spokesman declined to say whether she favors such a measure.
"If the federal government would have simply enforced the nation's immigration laws, then the calls for amending the Constitution would not even be an issue today," the spokesman said.
Bilbray sponsored a similar bill in 1995. Bilbray is chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus, a group of congressional members advocating stricter immigration enforcement measures.
"I think this is necessary because the American people are tired of people gaming the system," Bilbray said.
At least one parent should be a citizen, a legal immigrant or an illegal immigrant serving in the U.S. military for their children to qualify for American citizenship, Bilbray said. Otherwise, the child should be given the citizenship of his or her parents' nationality.
Opponents say those proposals are unnecessary and discriminatory.
Francine Busby, Bilbray's Democratic challenger in this year's midterm elections, said the 14th Amendment is clear and does not need to be changed.
"It's extreme," Busby said of changing the citizenship amendment. "I think that picking on pregnant women and newborn children is not going to solve all these problems that we have."
Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Hunter, said the matter is getting broader attention because the federal government has failed to address illegal immigration.
"This would probably be much less of an issue if the government would simply do its job, secure the border and enforce the law," Kasper said. "But that's evidently an unlikely scenario under this administration, just like its predecessor, which hasn't shown any real interest in doing what's actually needed."
Hunter's challenger in the election, Democrat Ray Lutz, said the congressman and others pushing for the change are using the issue to appeal to ultraconservative voters.
"This happened in 2006, as well," he said. "It was a midterm election. It comes up as a way to talk about people whom they (Republicans) know they don't stand to lose any votes from."
Section 1 of the 14th Amendment, drafted with newly freed slaves in mind after the Civil War, says: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States."
Those seeking to crack down on illegal immigration say the amendment has been misapplied over the years and that it was never intended to grant automatic citizenship to babies of illegal immigrants. They say that illegal immigrants are not fully "subject to the jurisdiction" of the U.S. because they can't be drafted into the military or tried for treason.
But Bill Hing, a law professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, disagrees and says there is no question that the 14th Amendment includes the children of illegal immigrants. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1898 case U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark that a child born in the United States to parents of foreign descent was a citizen.
Hing and others say the authors of the 14th Amendment intended to include the children of all immigrants, regardless of their legal status.
But others argue that the court ruling in U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark does not apply to children of illegal immigrants because the parents in the case were not illegal immigrants.
"The Supreme Court has never really ruled directly on the question of birthright citizenship," Kasper said. "In Wong Kim Ark, the case most often cited as the basis for the current interpretations, the court did not authoritatively settle birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants."
Gift of citizenship
Hunter has said he supports a bill, House Resolution 1868, that would eliminate automatic citizenship for those children.
The Birthright Citizenship Act, as the bill is called, was introduced last year. The legislation has 91 co-sponsors, including Hunter, Bilbray and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, but has been stuck in an immigration subcommittee since last year.
Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who would become the leader of the House if Republicans win the majority in November's elections, has said ending birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants is "worth considering."
The measure would require that at least one parent be a U.S. citizen, a legal resident or an illegal immigrant serving in the military for a child to be given citizenship.
Michele Waslin, an analyst with the Immigration Policy Center, a research organization that focuses on the contributions that immigrants make, said denying citizenship to children would only create more problems.
"It would punish the innocent children of undocumented immigrants, and it flies in the face of traditional American values," Waslin said.