WASHINGTON—It's been a cornerstone of American law since shortly after the Civil War: Children born in the United States become citizens, even if their parents are here illegally.
Now some conservatives are taking aim at that birthright.
They call the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants "anchor babies" because at age 18 the children can apply to bring other family members here from abroad, and a growing group of House Republicans wants to change the policy. They hope to add a provision to the immigration bill that the House of Representatives will consider next week that would deny citizenship to those children.
"They see people are coming here simply for the purpose of having a child here and then, because they're the anchor, they can have all the family come in on that child's ticket ... There are thousands upon thousands of people who are doing it," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., a leading opponent of illegal immigration. He cited "surprising" momentum behind the plan. A House bill to make the policy change has 77 co-sponsors.
Because of widespread opposition in the House and even more in the Senate, the measure is unlikely to become law, and would face a constitutional challenge in court if it did. But it promises to make the debate over illegal immigration even more divisive and could reverberate in next year's midterm elections.
"To change the way we establish citizenship is such an extreme measure, and it makes you really question what is motivating people to come up with those ideas," said Rep. Charlie Gonzalez, D-Texas, whose grandparents emigrated from Mexico. "It just goes counter to what we are as a people, and I think it does great harm."
According to the Constitution's 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868 to give former slaves U.S. citizenship, "all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States."
Tancredo said citizens of other countries are not subject to U.S. jurisdiction, and he added that drafters of the 14th Amendment did not intend it to apply to children of illegal immigrants.
But in a case in 1898, the Supreme Court ruled that a Chinese immigrant born in San Francisco was legally a U.S. citizen, even though federal law at the time denied citizenship to people from China. The court said birth in the United States constituted "a sufficient and complete right to citizenship."
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who serves on the House immigration subcommittee, said it would take a constitutional amendment to deny birthright citizenship.
"You can only assume they are offering this for political reasons and not a legal reason," she said.
Many conservatives have been pressing for stronger actions against illegal immigrants, such as building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. A national poll last month by the nonpartisan Rasmussen Reports found that 49 percent favored denying citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, with 41 percent opposing such a proposal.
Supporters note that few countries—none in Europe—offer birthright citizenship.
But Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, said that's why other countries have not been as successful at integrating immigrants. The birthright proposal is the worst of the immigration proposals floating around Washington and could be "suicide" for Republicans, she said.
Michele Waslin, director of immigration policy research at the National Council of La Raza, a leading Latino organization, said people are coming to the United States illegally for jobs, not to have children who must wait until they're 18 to petition to bring in other family members.
"I think it's unfortunate that some Republicans are trying to use innocent babies to score political points," she said.
(Puzzanghera reports for the San Jose Mercury News)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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