As Republican members of Congress press for changes to the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, preventing automatic citizenship for babies born to illegal immigrants, opponents insist the debate is not really about babies.
Instead, they say it is about politics and votes–not fixing the immigration system.
Still, the debate could resonate in Texas, where not only 1.5 million illegal immigrants are estimated to reside but at least 60,000 babies are added to their households annually.
But to Republicans, the emerging national debate is long overdue, considering that millions of immigrants have been living illegally in this country for years.
“I’ve checked the Congressional Record for when the 14th Amendment was written, and the author was quoted as saying that it did not apply to foreigners,” he [Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler] said. “There’s no question in my mind about it.”
The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868 as a way to block state laws that prevented former slaves from becoming citizens. It also effectively overruled the Dred Scott decision of 1857 in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that slaves were mere property and could not become citizens.
The amendment offered a broad definition of citizenship in one simple sentence: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”
Donald Kerwin, a vice president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., said he feared that altering the current interpretation of that law “would essentially restore the Dred Scott reasoning and create a hereditary underclass in the United States.
The effort to reinterpret the 14th Amendment has been talked about for years and been targeted by numerous congressional measures that went nowhere. Last year’s unsuccessful Birthright Citizenship Act, which had about 100 co-sponsors in Congress, would have required at least one parent to be a U.S. citizen for a baby to become an American citizen at birth.
The difference in this year’s effort to change the 14th Amendment is that prominent Republicans are offering their support and making public statements demanding a national debate of the issue.
Changing the Constitution, however, is not as simple as getting a bill through Congress by majority vote.
Amendments have to be approved by a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, then ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures. It has happened only 27 times in U.S. history, most recently in 1992 in reference to congressional pay increases.
This latest effort would fall far short of tackling the entire Latino population now living illegally in the U.S.–the 11 million to 12 million people, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center–because it would target only the children.
16 percent of births
In Texas, between 60,000 to 65,000 babies achieve U.S. citizenship annually by being born in the state’s hospitals, according to a tally released by the state’s Health and Human Services Commission. Last year, such births represented almost 16 percent of the total births statewide.
Between 2001 and 2009, births to illegal immigrant women totaled 542,152 in Texas alone.
However, Dr. Steve Murdock, a past director of the U.S. Census Bureau, said it would be difficult–even impossible–to turn this demographic tide by targeting the legal status of future births.
Murdock, previously the state’s chief demographer and now a professor at Rice University, said the growth of Hispanics as a group in Texas has more to do with their relatively younger ages than the Anglo majority and their higher birthrates.