WASHINGTON — ONE year after California overwhelmingly passed a controversial law denying government benefits to illegal immigrants, dozens of members of Congress are picking up the cause.
But lawmakers want to go beyond California's Proposition 187. Members of both parties have introduced several bills that, if passed, would amend the Constitution to end the automatic grant of citizenship to anyone born in the United States.
To accomplish that, Congress would have to repeal or reinterpret part of the 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868. 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."
The proposals are drawing sharp opposition from the Clinton administration, several Hispanic members of Congress, and some advocacy groups who say Hispanic immigrants are being unfairly targeted. But the bills are receiving substantial initial support from California lawmakers.
"The fundamental purpose of this language [in the 14th Amendment] was to confer federal citizenship on the newly freed slaves following the Civil War so they and their offspring would be ensured citizenship," says Rep. Brian Bilbray, a California Democrat, who is a former San Diego County official. "Today, this is interpreted to confer citizenship upon all persons who are born in the US, regardless of whether their parents are in this country legally or not."
Precedent for this interpretation extends back nearly 100 years. In 1898, the Supreme Court ruled that a child born in San Francisco to Chinese parents who could not become citizens themselves under anti-immigrant laws was automatically a citizen.
Since that decision, California has been affected most by illegal immigration from Mexico. In 1992 alone, nearly 96,000 babies were born to undocumented women covered by the Medi-Cal program - California's generous welfare system.
The Medi-Cal rolls saw an 85 percent increase over three years, which cost California taxpayers more than $230 million in medical bills. Births to undocumented immigrants represented 40 percent of the 237,000 publicly funded births in the state.
"These figures don't include women who previously moved to California illegally, are seeking amnesty under the 1986 immigration law, and have used Medi-Cal for their health care," says Joan Zinser, director of social services for San Diego County. "A single illegal immigrant bearing a child in San Diego County is entitled to about $400 a month in cash grants. These are costs we can no longer afford to bear."
Such rising costs have helped spur the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims to hold hearings on ways to discourage illegal immigration.
But some lawmakers are opposed to the reform. "The proposal would fundamentally alter the American concept of democracy," says Walter Dellinger, the assistant attorney general who is the Justice Department's chief constitutional scholar. "It would create a permanent caste of aliens, generation after generation, born in America but never to be among its citizens."
Rep. Jose Serrano (D) of New York calls the amendment idea the worst kind of immigrant bashing, aimed against Hispanic immigration. "If this complaint involved immigrants from Europe, we wouldn't be having this hearing," he says.
Nonetheless Rep. Bilbray's Citizenship Reform Act, which would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act statutorily, has received 40 cosponsors in the House and Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming has indicated he plans to introduce similar legislation in the Senate. But Mr. Dellinger says, "It is beyond dispute that, with few exceptions, the 14th Amendment confers citizenship on all who are born here, and can only be changed through a constitutional amendment."
With that in mind, Rep. Mark Foley (R) of Florida has 19 co-sponsors on his constitutional amendment, the Citizenship Clarification Act.
Both proposals aim to eliminate automatic citizenship. "It also would remove a huge incentive for illegal immigration," Mr. Bilbray says.
The efforts to change the Constitution in Congress and the passage of Proposition 187 in California have spurred on record-breaking citizenship drives in south Florida, home to another large immigrant population. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials in Miami say the number of people seeking citizenship this past year has been "unprecedented."
"Many of my constituents see the mood in the country and what's happening in Congress, and for them it's a race to become a US citizen as quickly as possible," says Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R) of Florida.