Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Who Gets to Be an American? the 14th Amendment Makes Everyone Born in the U.S. a Citizen-Including the Children of Illegal Immigrants. but Now, Birthright Citizenship Is under Attack

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

Who Gets to Be an American? the 14th Amendment Makes Everyone Born in the U.S. a Citizen-Including the Children of Illegal Immigrants. but Now, Birthright Citizenship Is under Attack

Article excerpt

Ever since the 14th Amendment was passed in the aftermath of the Civil War, it's been largely unquestioned that everyone in the United States is automatically a citizen.

But, as the national debate over illegal immigration intensifies in an election year, birthright citizenship is being seriously questioned for the first time in almost 150 years.

"This surfaces every once in a while as part of a bigger debate--it's usually more of a fringe discussion," says Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "What's different this time is that people in Congress are talking about it."

The Amendment (see text) was adopted in 1868 to ensure the citizenship of American-born former slaves and their children.

Opponents of birthright citizenship say it encourages continued illegal immigration. They contend that illegal immigrants are not under U.S. jurisdiction, as the Amendment specifies, and therefore their American-born children should not automatically be citizens.

"If you are an illegal immigrant, we clearly have not given you permission to reside here," says Rosemary Jenks of NumbersUSA, a group that favors decreased immigration. "You are still subject to the jurisdiction of your own country."

Talk of 'Anchor Babies'

But giving citizenship to everyone born in the United States has been upheld by the Supreme Court on the few occasions when it was tested there, immigration lawyers say.

The issue of birthright citizenship was thrust into the limelight by Senator Lindsey Graham in an interview with Fox News in August.

"We can't just have people swimming across the river having children here--that's chaos," said Graham, a South Carolina Republican. It quickly became a hot topic on cable TV and the Internet, and revived a popular misunderstanding--the problem of so-called "anchor babies." Talk show callers express frustration that pregnant women could cross the border from Mexico illegally, and rely on their newborns, who are citizens at birth, to put them immediately on a path to citizenship. In fact, under immigration law, American citizen children must wait until they are 21 years old to apply for legal residency for their parents.

Technically speaking, changing the law to disallow citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants would actually increase the size of the illegal population, since babies born to anyone here illegally would be illegal from the moment of their birth.

"You would be perpetuating a large undocumented population, with all these children growing up very much living in the shadows," says Hiroshi Motomura, an immigration law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. …

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