By LISA HOFFMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
November 18, 2005
At issue are children born in the United States to illegal immigrants. Based on longstanding constitutional interpretation, such babies are automatically American citizens by virtue of their place of birth.
In the House, a group of immigration hard-liners thinks this precept that has been around for a century and a half is a detriment to the nation because, they say, it can serve as a magnet for undocumented people to slip across the border and bear children. Such offspring can eventually serve as the "anchor" that other family members may use to gain citizenship themselves.
According to this point of view, many pregnant women, or young couples of childbearing age, may decide to try to get to U.S. soil so the children will reap American citizenship and the opportunities and benefits that go with it.
And once the children reach age 21, they can begin to sponsor family members to legally immigrate. To Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., and others on a House immigration task force, that effectively rewards those who break immigration laws.
Citizenship "should not be bestowed on people who are the children of folks who come into this country illegally," Tancredo said.
But critics of doing away with what is sometimes called "birthright citizenship" say the constitutional provision has actually been a boon for the United States, one of the few countries in the world to grant such immediate status.
By embracing all babies at birth as Americans, the nation has avoided the societal unrest that has festered in France, where even the French-born children of Arab and other legal immigrants do not automatically become citizens until they reach 18.
Resentment and discrimination from that segregated status is blamed for contributing to the rage that exploded into riots in recent weeks across France.
"It has served us well by giving (everyone born in the United States) the sense of belonging from day one," said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. "It's how we built our country."
He also questioned how much of a motivation the citizenship anchor is in driving people to enter the United States illegally. Most who do come are looking for work, and are unlikely to be making the calculation that, in 21 years, their children can be their ticket to legal status, he said.
"The vast majority of people have much more immediate concerns in mind," Papademetriou said.
There are no certain numbers for how many babies are born to undocumented mothers in America each year. Estimates range from about 100,000 to 300,000.
The underpinning of the inclusive policy is the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which says, in part: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States."
Ratified in 1868, the amendment was designed to extend birthright citizenship to blacks, but has been interpreted ever since to apply to everyone born in the United States.
In the past two decades, as concerns over illegal immigration have grown, some in Congress have taken stabs at changing the birthright guarantee.
The last time the issue surfaced was in 1993, but efforts at reform were weakened when the Justice Department advised that it would take a constitutional amendment - with ratification by three-quarters of the states - to accomplish it.
Now, the House lawmakers are exploring whether there are legislative avenues they could follow short of such an amendment. This approach is based on an interpretation that the 14th Amendment itself gives Congress the right to enforce its provisions legislatively.
The U.S. Supreme Court "has held that Congress has some power to define the substance of the rights that are protected under the amendment and may even, under some circumstances, legislate contrary to judicial decisions," the Congressional Research Service wrote in a November report for Congress on the legal underpinnings of the birthright guarantee.
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