Will Debate about Citizenship Be Settled in Court or Congress?

Article excerpt

According to health officials, about 100,000 children are born yearly to illegal aliens in Califonia's state hospitals, running up a tab of some $300 million for state taxpayers. That does not include welfare benefits for which the families qualify by virtue of the newborn's automatic U.S. citizenship.

It's time, say some politicians, to take away the "carrot" of birthright citizenship.

"Some 25 percent of babies in public hospitals in the U.S. are born to illegal aliens," maintains Rep. Steve Stockman, a Texas Republican, though his figures are disputed by Hispanic groups. "We offer all these carrots like public assistance, so it's naive to think that illegal aliens will not come here and take advantage of that."

Stockman has proposed an amendment to the Constitution, HR87, that would nullify birthright citizenship. "Citizens of the United States," states the proposed amendment, "shall only be persons born to a parent who is a citizen of the United States, persons born within the United States, and all persons naturalized according to the laws of the United States,"

Although Stockman sees little chance of HR87 finding its way into the Constitution - of the nearly 11,000 amendments proposed in the last 200 years, only 17 have been ratified - he hopes it will draw attention to the problem. "I believe that you should attack a problem from all sides," he tells Insight. "Hopefully, it will get the debate going and get other legislation into play."

Leading the fight for a legislative solution is Rep. Brian Bilbray, Republican from California. "There are extensive precedents for Congress' authority to change or grant citizenship," he wrote in a recent editorial in the San Diego Union-Tribune. "Congress has statutorily granted citizenship to various Indian tribes 12 times since 1890." Indeed, the debate to overturn the 14th Amendment's citizenship clause - "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" - has been ongoing for more than a century.

"Is the child of the Chinese immigrant in California a citizen?" asked Sen. Edgar Cowan of Pennsylvania in 1866, clearly implying an answer in the negative.

"The children of all parentage whatever, born in California, should be regarded and treated as citizens of the United States," countered Sen. John Conness of California, "entitled to equal civil rights with other citizens."

The 14th Amendment originally was propagated in response to the Supreme Court's infamous Dred Scott decision. The court had ruled that neither blacks who were "imported into this country and sold as slaves" nor their descendants could become citizens of the United States.

But the amendment "was not meant to apply to illegal immigrants," Rep. Lamar Smith, Republican from Texas, maintains. As a matter of fact, the Supreme Court has never taken up the issue of children of illegal immigrants."

At the time of the 14th Amendment's ratification in 1868, there was no such person as an "illegal" immigrant, however, since immigration to the United States was wide open. Not only was there a philosophical commitment to this on the part of many lawmakers of the time, there also was a need for immigrant workers.

Grounds for citizenship vary from country to country, but most sovereign nations have adopted one of two legal concepts: jus soli (right of the soil) or jus sanguinis (line of descent). Most countries, including France as of 1993, depend primarily on jus sanguinis, emphasizing blood ties. The United States is one of a handful of nations that always has followed jus soli, although the principle influenced many postfeudal European countries where central governments were working to unite previously disparate fiefdoms. …