With a new 2011 Congress, the fight is again joined. Representative Gary Miller, a Republican whose district runs from Mission Viejo to Diamond Bar, has with several House colleagues reintroduced the Birthright Citizenship Act, H.R. 140. The OpenCongress.org summary states that the bill would “eliminate birthright citizenship for children born to undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Current law automatically recognizes any person born on American soil as a natural born citizen. Under the bill, only children with at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen, a legal permanent resident, or an undocumented immigrant serving in the military would be considered citizens.”
According to a press release from Miller’s office, “Currently, there are 3.4 million U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants between the ages of 5 and 18, representing more than 70 percent of the population of children of illegal immigrants. The cost of childbirth and prenatal care is often paid for by American taxpayers, and illegal immigrant parents receive government benefits via their U.S. citizen child. In fact, this exploitation of the Fourteenth Amendment costs American taxpayers over $5.6 billion annually at the federal level, and it costs billions more at the state and local level.”
What are the human numbers? The Pew Hispanic Center reports that an estimated 340,000 children were born in America in 2008, the “offspring of unauthorized immigrants.” This is roughly 8 percent of the 4.3 million babies born that year. About two-thirds of the parents of the 340,000 births have been in the United States for at least five years. This would suggest that some portion of the parents of 117,000 babies may have entered the U.S. illegally to have a child. In total, there are currently 4 million U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants residing in the country.
The issue is grounded as much in constitutional precedent as it is in a design paradox. This is delineated best by Lino Graglia, professor of law at the University of Texas. Graglia writes: “It is difficult to imagine a more irrational and self-defeating legal system than one which makes unauthorized entry into this country a criminal offense and simultaneously provides perhaps the greatest possible inducement to illegal entry.”
It still seems that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. There are plenty of programs in America for pregnant women and nursing mothers, legal and illegal alike, such as Women, Infants, and Children; Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California); and a chance at relief from deportation: some 4000 unauthorized immigrants are given such status each year, but the parent must have been in the country at least ten years.
Locally, Jeff Schwilk, cofounder and spokesman for the San Diego Minutemen, agrees that these advantages have to be curbed. He and his group rally on the border with banners, speeches, and a lot of media coverage, calling for beefed-up border security. Schwilk tells me by phone that his 800 members are fed up with federal immigration policy. While building a fence “takes years and billions of dollars,” which the Minutemen favor, Congress, he notes, can change this loophole “in an afternoon. It’s hanging fruit — easy to do.”
Schwilk repeatedly uses the phrase “anchor baby.” It implies, as does Senator Lindsay Graham’s phrase “drop and leave,” a callousness on the part of families who use children to get something for nothing. Schwilk also employs the catch-phrase “jackpot babies.” That is, he says, where “baby equals money. On this side of the border, it’s big dollar signs.” He cites CalWorks as one program that pays the poor and unemployed a monthly stipend: many of its enrollees, he notes, are the citizen-children of illegals.
Schwilk is anti-Republican party, anti-amnesty, anti-George W. Bush. He calls the former president “pro-illegal” and himself a “constitutional conservative. I don’t trust Republicans,” he says, to solve this issue. He and the Minutemen focus on bulking up border security. What he’s seen is a “50 percent drop in border crossings.” In the previous decade, “95 percent got through.” Still, this drop is not significant for him: “To say you can’t get back is not even close. Estimates are that somewhere between 400,000 and a million people make it through every year. The Border Patrol says that they catch 450,000 but they have never claimed they catch more than one in two, or one in three. Nor do they even try. Their goal is to stop drug smuggling and terrorists. That’s their mission.”
Changing — or as it’s also termed, reinterpreting — the Fourteenth Amendment shouldn’t be hard for Congress, Schwilk says. He believes it was intended (upon ratification in 1868) to grant citizenship only to African-Americans; it was never intended to give citizenship to “the children of illegal aliens.” (The amendment excluded American Indians, whose tribes have sovereignty, and the children of diplomats.) Schwilk wants to follow the leads of every European country that has “closed this loophole” and make it a law that citizenship be conferred only on those born to parents of whom one is a citizen or legal resident. “That seems only fair to the 1.5 million who come here legally every year.”
Keeping Birthright Intact
By contrast, those opposed to amending the Constitution often describe the right wing’s attack as “political theater.” They argue the congressional action will do nothing to stop illegal immigration. Such is the view of John Skrentny, director for the Center for Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. “Regarding your question,” he writes in an email, “I would say this: while I will not comment on the pros and cons of the birthright citizenship that we have in the United States, I will say that there is little reason to expect that eliminating it will significantly reduce the amount of illegal immigration that we attract. Very few countries provide for birthright citizenship, but all developed countries have problems with illegal immigration. Our problem may be worse in terms of numbers than developed states in Europe or Asia, but there are many reasons for this. It’s hard to make direct comparisons because America is unique in ways other than birthright citizenship. For example, I know of no developed countries in Europe or Asia that share a long land border with a country that is significantly poorer (as we share with Mexico). This fact alone almost certainly has more to do with illegal immigration than the 14th Amendment.”