Immigration-rights activists say citizenship isn’t a significant driver of illegal immigration, because a child has to reach age 21 to petition for permanent legal residency for his or her parents.
Such calls to change what has been a bedrock feature of the immigration system are sure to set off contentious debate. “It’s an extreme position, and Sen. Graham knows this,” said Angela Kelley of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “He’s not one to tamper with the Constitution, so I’m surprised he would even suggest this.”
In Arizona, Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce, the architect of the immigration law that drew a legal challenge from the Obama administration, said he wanted to deny U.S. citizenship to children born in his state to illegal immigrants.
At issue is the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, enacted in 1868 to ensure that states not deny former slaves the full rights of citizenship. It states: “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.”
Mr. Graham, speaking on Fox, suggested that changing birthright-citizenship rules would require a constitutional amendment. “We should change our Constitution and say if you come here illegally and have a child, that child’s not automatically a citizen,” he said.
He said he was considering introducing such an amendment. A spokesman said Thursday that Mr. Graham was just discussing the idea and hadn’t made any decisions about whether to move ahead.
Mr. Pearce, like some other proponents of the change, argued that the amendment as written doesn’t apply to illegal immigrants. Because illegal immigrants aren’t “subject to the jurisdiction” of the U.S., as the amendment requires, they fall outside its protection, these people argue. A group of House lawmakers made a similar argument when they tried to pass legislation changing the birthright principle in 2005.
“When it was ratified in 1868, the amendment had to do with African-Americans; it had nothing to do with aliens,” said Mr. Pearce. “It’s got to be fixed.”
Under Mr. Pearce’s proposal, Arizona would refuse to issue a birth certificate to any child unless at least one parent could prove legal presence in the U.S. “The 14th Amendment has been hijacked and abused,” Mr. Pearce said. “We incentivize people to break our laws.”