Hours after a federal judge blocked the most controversial parts of Arizona's hard-line immigration law on July 28, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham had an idea. That evening, Graham, a South Carolina Republican, announced that he was thinking of introducing a bill to change the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to the children of immigrants born in the United States.
"People come here to have babies," he told Fox News. "They come here to drop a child. It's called 'drop and leave.' To have a child in America, they cross the border, they go to the emergency room, have a child, and that child's automatically an American citizen. That shouldn't be the case. That attracts people here for all the wrong reasons."
On a night that otherwise might have disappointed anti-immigration conservatives, Graham's comments immediately shifted the focus of the heated debate from Arizona's law, which required police to check the status of suspected illegal immigrants, to "anchor babies" -- an alleged plot by immigrants to score citizenship and a place in the U.S. welfare state, first for their children and eventually for themselves. A handful of Graham's Republican colleagues have agreed that the issue warrants further investigation, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pressing for congressional hearings on what he described as the "burgeoning" business of birth tourism, and House Minority Leader John Boehner arguing Aug.8 on Meet the Press that it's "worth considering" repealing the 14th Amendment.
McConnell pointed to a Washington Post story about brokers who arranged for Chinese women to bear children at specialty "baby care centers" in the United States -- charging more than $14,000 for tourists to give birth in the U.S. so their children would be citizens. But there is scant evidence that there are elaborate schemes to exploit this loophole outside of a small handful of rich Chinese couples. And it's even less clear that illegal immigrants have deliberately decided to take advantage of the law en masse. About 4 million children in the United States have at least one parent who entered illegally, according to the Pew Hispanic Center: not an insignificant number, but still a very small fraction of the U.S. population, which is about 310 million.
Although Graham's ploy amounts to little more than high-voltage political theater, the Republican remarks reignited conservative scaremongering that illegal immigrants -- and even would-be terrorists -- were using the amendment to exploit the immigration system. The attacks tap into emotionally charged themes that have shaped the American immigration debate for decades -- and evoke the immigration battles of the 19th century, when the 14th Amendment was adopted.
As its opponents frequently point out, the U.S. version of birthright citizenship is unusually inclusive. Over the past few decades, Australia, Britain, France, and other industrialized countries have modified and restricted their own birthright laws in the face of similar concerns about immigration and the capacity of the modern welfare state. But supporters of U.S. birthright citizenship defend the provision as uniquely American. They recall the historical origins of the 14th Amendment, adopted during Reconstruction after the Civil War by Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party to protect the children of freed slaves.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, liberal columnist E.J. Dionne cites an impassioned 1859 defense of birthright citizenship by Carl Schurz, a German immigrant and Republican legislator. Birthright opponents denounced the law for naturalizing the country's "entire colored population," warning that a scourge of "Gipsies" would imperil the nation. Rushing to defend the law, Schurz declared: "All the social and national elements of the civilized world are represented in the new land ... their peculiar characteristics are to be blended together by the all-assimilating power of freedom. This is the origin of the American nationality, which did not spring from one family, one tribe, one country, but incorporates the vigorous elements of all civilized nations on Earth."