March 30, 2007

Proposal would deny citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants

By Michael Famiglietti
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

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.

Arizona Democratic Gov. Janet 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.

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