Arizona’s next ugly battle: citizenship for immigrant children

The same state senator behind Arizona’s strict immigration laws is now pushing a troubling bill to ban birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.

As a kid, I was well acquainted with the grandeur of Arizona. Each year, during my family’s annual drive from southern California to my grandpa’s home in Texas, I would gaze out the car window at soaring desert mesas, distant mountaintops crowned with snow, and endless vistas punctuated by sagebrush and cacti. An Arizona sunset, I thought, was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Lately, it saddens me that the news from the Grand Canyon State is so ugly. In April, Gov. Jan Brewer signed the most stringent immigration law in the country. In May, the state banned ethnic studies in public schools and began investigating teachers with accents. Now the Arizona legislature may take aim at the children of illegal immigrants.

This fall, state Sen. Russell Pearce plans to introduce legislation that would end birthright citizenship for so-called “anchor babies.” Although the Fourteenth Amendment confers citizenship on anyone born in the US, Senator Pearce says that illegal aliens have “hijacked” the law. “There is an orchestrated effort by them to come here and have children to gain access to the great welfare state we’ve created," he told Time magazine.

Yet these kids are largely Americans. The Pew Center estimates that there are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US. Most of their children – 73 percent – are American-born. That’s 4 million kids, according to a 2009 Pew report. They are citizens, like you and me.

I take exception to the whole concept of “anchor babies.” It is based on the false notion that illegal immigrants have children in this country to serve as a legal “anchor” for the entire family. In fact, illegal aliens who have children here can still be deported. Elvira Arellano, who received national attention for seeking sanctuary in a Chicago church, was deported in 2007, despite having an American-born son.

Under Pearce’s proposal, Arizona would refuse to issue a birth certificate to any child without at least one parent who could prove legality. Not only is this impractical and unconstitutional, I find it abhorrent that anyone would punish children on account of their parents. Law enforcement should be more concerned with trafficking and drugs, rather than new parents and babies.

The Fourteenth Amendment was enacted in 1868 to ensure that states did not deny former slaves the full rights of citizenship. Its language is simple: “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 next section is crystal clear: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” It seems pretty obvious that our post-civil war political leaders foresaw the possibility of states devising their own citizenship criteria, and specifically forbade it.

The Supreme Court has consistently upheld birthright citizenship, going as far back as 1898, in US v. Wong Kim Ark. This landmark case recognized a US-born son of Chinese immigrants as an American citizen.

Pearce maintains that public opinion is on his side, and he’s right. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, 58 percent of Americans don’t believe that children of illegal immigrants should receive citizenship. However, this is a constitutional guarantee, not an issue to be decided by demagoguery or popular sentiment. Besides, if anything “anchors” undocumented workers to the US, it is jobs. Wouldn’t it be a better use of Arizona’s resources to go after employers that hire illegal workers?

I agree that our immigration system is broken, but Pearce’s plan is not going to fix anything. Ending birthright citizenship would create a two-tiered system of Americans, which was exactly what the 14th Amendment sought to prevent. It would increase the number of people living and working in the shadows. Ironically, Pearce was one of the driving forces behind Arizona’s infamous “Papers, please” law. His new idea would deprive people of their papers – permanently.

All reasonable Americans ought to be concerned by Arizona’s proposed legislation, as similar measures are in the works in Texas and Oklahoma. I hope that President Obama will speak out against Pearce’s plan.

On his website, Russell Pearce notes that he is “For faith, family, and freedom above all else.” But is he really? He does not appear to have faith that the Constitution means what it plainly says. He is willing to divide families with restrictive immigration policies. He has compromised the freedom of Latinos by infringing on our civil rights.

Most troubling of all, his proposal to end birthright citizenship is a threat to one of the cornerstone principles of our democracy – that all men are created equal.

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.


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