WASHINGTON – When children of illegal immigrants are born in the United States,they automatically become citizens. Some Republicans want to revoke that privilege to discourage others from crossing the border.
They've tried to do that almost every session since 1995,but the proposal has never made it to a vote.
This string of failures has not deterred Republican Rep. Elton Gallegly of California from introducing the Citizenship Reform Act of 2007. It would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to deny automatic citizenship to children born in the U.S. whose parents aren't citizens or permanent resident aliens.
The immigration act,passed in 1952,and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution have guaranteed citizenship to any child born on U.S. soil.
Gallegly's bill has been referred to the Judiciary subcommittee on immigraation,citizenship,refugees,border security and international law. His office did not respond to several requests for comment.
Rep. Brian Bilbray,R-Calif.,who introduced the first version of the Citizenship Reform Act in 1995,said changing the law would “eliminate the freebie” people receive when their children turn 21,when they can sponsor other family members,including their parents,for citizenship.
The act has faced strong opposition over the years because few understand the issue,and back then “people thought it was on the fringe,now it's mainstream,” Bilbray said.
Since 1995,the immigration issue has captured the nation's attention,as an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants have settled in the United States.
President George Bush has said he wants to incorporate a guest worker program to employ some immigrants as seasonal workers and offer a path to citizenship for others who have lived in the U.S. for an extended time. But last year's Republican-controlled Congress refused to adopt his plan.
Bilbray said he thinks Republicans have ignored the issue for too long,and the Democrats took the majority in Congress because many of them promised to enforce immigration laws during their campaigns.
“The new Democrats are farther to the conservative side than some Republicans,” he added.
One problem for the legislation may be overcoming the language of the 14th Amendment,which 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.”
But proponents argue that the phrase,”subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” eliminates illegal immigrants from its protection. That reasoning would give their children the same status as those born to foreign diplomats,who aren't eligible for automatic citizenship.
Marvien Comrique,40 of Phoenix,Ariz.,moved to the U.S. from Mexico City and was naturalized after she married a U.S. citizen.
In 1987,when she met her husband,she was a Mexican Rodeo queen and was not planning to move to the United States. “I fell in love,OK?” she said. “I didn't cross the border because I wanted to take advantage.”
Now Comrique works at the Centro De Amistad,a mental health facility for children in Guadalupe,Ariz. She said most clients have parents or family member who entered the country illegally.
The opportunities in the U.S. tempt many in Mexico,she said. Some pregnant women come to the United States looking for a better life for their children,but others come looking for a handout.
“They say,‘It's treasure over here,'” Comrique said. “It's embarrassing,they say,‘Give me this,give me that.'”
Supporters of the act argue that it would help eliminate the cost of educating the children of illegal immigrants,a financial drain on states.
“The birthright issue is one of the least-known issues regarding immigration,” said John L. Martin,the director of special projects for the Federation for American Reform,which works to curtail illegal immigration. “It's hard for it to rise to the No. 1 issue at the present time.”
Martin estimates that states spent more than $16 billion in 2004 to educate 2 million children born to illegal immigrants.
He said California spent the most,$4.5 billion,and in Arizona,where Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano has gained national attention with her calls for Congress to reimburse the state's attempts to secure the border,costs totaled $436 million.
Martin multiplies the number of students by the average cost per child,which he gets from the U.S. Department of Education.
He estimates the number of illegal immigrants by subtracting the number of legal immigrants from the number of foreign-born people living in the country,as reported by the U.S. Census.
He said most people don't realize the huge incentive automatic citizenship provides.
“If you lived in Mexico,as I have,you know the Mexicans have a long-term strategy,” said Martin,who worked for the U.S. Consulate in Mexico from 1968 to 1970. “They place their bets and take their chances long term.”
Napolitano,speaking before the National Press Club in February,said she was against changing citizenship requirements. “This is not a U.S. Constitution issue,” she said. “We don't want to take this out on the children. They didn't choose this.”
Michele Waslin,the director of immigration policy research at the National Council of La Raza,agreed that the act would go after the innocent instead of curbing illegal immigration.
“It punishes children for the acts of their parents,” she said.
Waslin and her organization lobby against acts such as this as part of their mission to improve opportunities for Hispanic-Americans.
She said she thinks it only has a “slight” chance to pass,but its introduction scares women into thinking they might have to prove citizenship if they go to a hospital to give birth.
“We take it very seriously; it's an issue that's misunderstood,” she said.
Comrique,who is considering moving back to Mexico now that she's divorced,said if the act passed it would “absolutely” stop some from crossing the border.
“I love my people,I love my country,” she added. “But they're breaking the law,and you're not supposed to reward them.”
Robert Corona,her 17-year-old son who was born in the U.S.,said that when people criticize the children of immigrants it offends him,but sometimes he can understand their problem.
“There are different kinds of Mexicans,” he said. “Some are lazy,some are not.”