Politics & Government

South Carolina's Graham does an about-face on immigration

WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey Graham said Thursday that he's talked with other senators about crafting a constitutional amendment that would deny American citizenship to illegal immigrants' children born in the United States.

Graham's idea is a stunning reversal for a senator whose advocacy of giving legal status to the country's 12 million undocumented workers is so well known that conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh and many of his listeners call the Seneca Republican "Senator Grahamnesty."

Graham, along with President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., were GOP leaders of a 2007 failed Senate effort to enact comprehensive immigration reforms including a path to legal residency or citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Now, Graham is weighing a constitutional amendment in response to a federal judge's ruling Wednesday that he said "gutted" Arizona's controversial law directing police to demand proof of citizenship or legal residency from anyone detained or arrested.

"It makes no sense to the average American in 2010 that if you come across the border illegally and have a child here, that child automatically becomes a citizen," Graham told McClatchy. "I don't know of many other countries that do this."

U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton issued an injunction blocking implementation of most parts of the Arizona law authorizing local police to enforce federal immigration law.

The state law was to have gone into effect Thursday. Bolton ruled on an injunction request from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who filed suit July 6 against the state of Arizona.

In every session of Congress since 1995, when Republicans gained control of the House for the first time in a half-century, GOP lawmakers have introduced bills removing "birthright citizenship" from the offspring of illegal immigrants.

Such legislation has never advanced far, and Graham said eliminating birthright citizenship for undocumented immigrants' children would require passage of a constitutional amendment.

"I welcome a debate about whether it's good policy to create an inducement to break our laws," he said. "My goal is to create inducements to come here legally."

Toward that end, Graham is also pushing to increase the number of foreign employees that companies can sponsor under several government work-visa programs.

"Whether it's a computer engineer or someone to help harvest the crops, I'd like employers to be able to access labor in an orderly way," he said.

Graham's notion of a constitutional amendment to end automatic citizenship for the newborn of illegal immigrants got a mixed reception even from groups that back tougher enforcement of the nation's border restrictions.

Mark Krikorian, an analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, said eliminating "birthright citizenship" would actually increase the number of illegal immigrants.

Children who would have been citizens, Krikorian said, would become illegal aliens were Graham's constitutional amendment pass Congress and be ratified by the states.

"I'm exactly against changing this," he said. "I think it's sort of a stupid thing. You would end up with lots of U.S.-born illegal immigrants. There's something like 300,000 kids born here to illegal immigrants every year."

Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, said Congress has the power to prohibit automatic citizenship for undocumented workers' babies through legislation rather than a constitutional amendment.

Mehlman, though, said he wouldn't have expected Graham to be backing such an idea.

"Certainly, there's some surprise given the fact that he has supported amnesty for illegal aliens," Mehlman said. "We take him at his word that he is proposing this. We were somewhat surprised, but people can find redemption."

Graham, though, said the 14th Amendment of the Constitution would have to be changed in order to end birthright citizenship.

The first sentence of that amendment, passed by Congress in 1866 and ratified by the states in 1868, reads:

"All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside."

The amendment was enacted after the Civil War in order to guarantee citizenship to former slaves.

In order to take effect, a constitutional amendment must be approved by minimum two-thirds votes in both chambers of Congress and then ratified by three-quarters of the states.

The 27th Amendment, ratified in 1992, is the most recent such constitutional change. It requires that any change in lawmakers' salaries not take effect at least until the session of Congress following the one in which the change was approved.