92 in House take aim at citizenship policy

Status of those born on U.S. soil to illegal immigrants at issue

December 10, 2005|By WARREN VIETH

WASHINGTON -- For nearly 140 years, any child born on U.S. soil, even to an illegal immigrant, has been given American citizenship. Now, some conservatives in Congress are determined to change that.

A group of 92 lawmakers in the House will attempt next week to force a vote on legislation that would revoke the principle of "birthright citizenship," part of a broader effort to discourage illegal immigration.

The push to change the citizenship policy is backed by some conservative activists and academics. But it could cause problems for the White House and Republican Party, which have been courting Latino voters. GOP officials fear the effort to eliminate birthright citizenship will alienate a key constituency, even if the legislation ultimately is rejected by Congress or the courts.

"This one really hits a nerve," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group. "This is about attempting to deal with a serious policy problem by going after people's babies. It doesn't have to become law for this kind of proposal to offend people."

The principle at issue rests on the first sentence of the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868 to guarantee the rights of emancipated slaves: "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."

Some lawmakers pushing for tougher immigration laws contend that the amendment has been misinterpreted for decades. Although illegal immigrants are subject to criminal prosecution and are expected to abide by U.S. laws and regulations, they are not "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States in the full sense intended by the amendment's authors, conservatives assert - and their children therefore fall outside the scope of its protection.

Even those who want to change the interpretation acknowledge that illegal immigration is largely driven by the hunger for jobs at U.S. wages. But they also say that for some immigrants, automatic citizenship provides another compelling incentive to cross the border. They note that the United States is one of few major industrialized nations that grant birthright citizenship with no qualifications.

"Illegal immigrants are coming for many different reasons," said Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, one of the lawmakers pushing for the House measure. "Some are coming for jobs. Some are coming to give childbirth. Some are coming to commit crimes. Addressing this problem is needed if we're going to try to combat illegal immigration on all fronts."

The 92-member House Immigration Reform Caucus, headed by Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican, wants to attach an amendment revoking birthright citizenship to a broader immigration bill scheduled to be taken up next week. Although several revocation bills have been introduced in the House, the one most likely to move forward would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to deny automatic citizenship to children born in the United States to parents who are not citizens or permanent resident aliens.

There is no official tally of the number of children born to illegal immigrants; unofficial estimates range from 100,000 to 350,000 a year. Smith and other critics of current immigration law say that 1 in 10 U.S. births - and 1 in 5 births in California - are to women who have entered the country illegally.

Upon reaching the age of 18, a U.S.-born child of illegal immigrants can petition to obtain permanent legal residency for his or her parents and siblings. Although it generally takes years for such requests to be approved or rejected, parents who eventually receive visas then can begin the process of applying for full citizenship.

Because of the long lag time involved, some immigration experts say that birthright citizenship is not a major incentive for the vast majority of illegal entrants.

"No, absolutely not," said Tamar Jacoby of the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank. "It's something that a few middle-class professional people do. I have never met a poor person who has his wife walk across the desert at eight months pregnant so they can wait 21 years to be sponsored by their child."

Harry Pachon, executive director of the University of Southern California's Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, said there undoubtedly are some immigrants for whom birthright citizenship is a significant incentive. "But is it in the hundreds of thousands? I don't think so, and there's no evidence to support that," Pachon said.

Warren Vieth writes for the Los Angeles Times

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