WASHINGTON — As one of its first acts, the new Congress will consider denying citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants who are born in the United States.
Those children, who are now automatically granted citizenship at birth, will be one of the first targets of the Republican-led House when it convenes in January.
GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the incoming chairman of the subcommittee that oversees immigration, is expected to push a bill that would deny "birthright citizenship" to such children.
The measure, assailed by critics as unconstitutional, is an indication of how the new majority intends to flex its muscles on the volatile issue of illegal immigration.
The idea has a growing list of supporters, including Republican Reps. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove and Dan Lungren of Gold River, but it has aroused intense opposition, as well.
"I don't like it," said Chad Silva, statewide policy analyst for the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California. "It's been something that's been a part of America for a very long time. For us, it sort of flies in the face of what America is about."
Republicans, Silva said, are "going in there and starting to monkey with the Constitution."
The 14th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1868, guarantees citizenship to anyone born or naturalized in the United States. It was intended to make sure that children of freed slaves were granted U.S. citizenship.
While opponents say King's bill would clearly be unconstitutional, backers say the 14th Amendment would not apply. The amendment states that anyone born in the United States and "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" is a citizen.
King said the amendment would not apply to the children of illegal immigrants because their parents should not be in the country anyway. He said immigration law should not create incentives for people to enter the country illegally and that it's creating an "anchor baby industry."
"Many of these illegal aliens are giving birth to children in the United States so that they can have uninhibited access to taxpayer-funded benefits and to citizenship for as many family members as possible," King said.
An estimated 340,000 of the 4.3 million babies born in the United States in 2008 were the children of undocumented immigrants, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Pew Hispanic Center done last year.
The issue is dividing Republicans, too.
"We find both this rhetoric and this unconstitutional conduct reprehensible, insulting and a poor reflection upon Republicans," DeeDee Blasé, the founder of Somos Republicans, a Latino GOP organization based in the Southwestern states, said in a letter to House Republican leaders.
Silva said the Republican plan is "not the fix," adding that the citizenship of children born to immigrants was never an issue during the immigration tide at the turn of the 20th century and that it shouldn't be now.
"That's our strength," he said. "And to start splitting hairs like that will only make the immigration issue worse."
Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento called King's plan "both unconstitutional and shortsighted."
"The 14th Amendment to the Constitution grants American citizenship to anyone born on American soil," she said. "I firmly believe we must reform the current immigration system, but we need to do so comprehensively with policies that respect our nation's history, strengthen our borders, and help our economy."
McClintock outlined his position last summer in a rebuttal to a newspaper editorial: "If illegal immigration is to be rewarded with birthright citizenship, public benefits and amnesty, it becomes impossible to maintain our immigration laws and the process of assimilation that they assure," he wrote.
McClintock noted that the United Kingdom, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, France and India have all changed their laws in recent years to require that at least one parent be a legal resident for the child to become a legal citizen.
Lungren, who served as California's attorney general from 1990 to 1998 introduced a similar bill in 2007, but it did not pass the House, which was controlled by Democrats at the time.
His bill called for defining what "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" means. Lungren proposed that the clause would apply to any person born to a parent who is a citizen, a legal alien or an alien serving in the military.