The fuss over birthright citizenship has been around as long as the 14th Amendment has -- and it's not going away anytime soon.
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."
Modern immigration advocates argue that America's melting-pot inclusiveness has been the basis of the country's success -- and that expanding legal citizenship is likewise crucial to future progress. "Successful integration has always been a multigenerational process.... Kids learn English and have better educational outcomes, all in the course of a generation," says Marc Rosenblum, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. "To treat those children differently and to make them second-tier residents isn't likely to reduce unauthorized immigration -- it's likely to lead to further polarization, inequality, and exploitation."
The argument for birthright citizenship reflects the larger argument for expanding the pathway to legal citizenship: It provides a quicker route for immigrants to become full tax-paying members of society, improving social cohesion, educational advancement, and productivity. A landmark 1997 study by the National Research Council showed that while immigrants without a high school education had a net negative fiscal impact -- consuming $16,000 more in services than taxes, at the time of the study -- highly skilled immigrants had an exponentially higher fiscal impact, contributing $198,000 more in taxes than services. Because of this, and other arguments that the legal status of immigrant parents should not affect U.S.-born children's citizenship, the few times that the policy has been challenged in the Supreme Court, it has been upheld.
Nonetheless, the attacks on birthright citizenship have refused to die. During the 1960s and 1970s, the father of the modern anti-immigration movement, retired ophthalmologist John Tanton, played on fears of American declinism and dwindling resources by fixating on overpopulation. "To govern is to populate," wrote Tanton in 1986. "Will the present majority peaceably hand over its political power to a group that is simply more fertile?... As Whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night?"
Driven by a preoccupation with immigrant fecundity, Tanton laid the groundwork for groups that are now at the heart of the anti-immigration movement -- and whose views and rhetoric have gradually trickled into the mainstream. Although the legislation has generally remained on the fringes of the debate, at least one bill addressing birthright citizenship has been proposed almost every year in Congress since the early 1990s. Michele Waslin, senior research analyst at the Immigration Policy Council, a pro-immigration group, notes that one congressional hearing on the issue was held in 1995, shortly after California voters passed a ballot initiative to prevent illegal immigrants from availing themselves of public education, health care, and other social services. (A federal court ultimately struck down the measure, known as Proposition 187.) "It's the same argument -- about how much all these kids cost to educate and provide health insurance," says Waslin.
The same fears -- that immigrants are exploiting the U.S. welfare state, overpopulating the country, and taking away opportunities -- drive the current debate, amplified by a sluggish economy and a hyperpartisan and polarized political climate. Washington has spent more than two decades trying to reform the country's outdated immigration laws in light of changing demographics and rapidly globalizing economy, most recently in 2007, when George W. Bush's administration tried to pass an overhaul. At the time, a group of Republicans had cast themselves as pro-immigrant reformers, citing findings like the 1997 National Research Council study, which showed that U.S. immigrants -- both legal and illegal -- paid an average of $80,000 more in taxes than they consumed in public services in the long term. They even argued that higher fertility levels among immigrants would actually bolster the country's economy by making the labor force younger and healthier.
Threatened by such heresy from within the GOP, anti-immigration activists hauled out hot-button issues like "birthright citizenship" to fan the flames of the conservative opposition during the Bush years, successfully using such tactics to defeat Bush's immigration plan and push pro-immigrant Republicans like Senators John McCain and Graham further to the right. Conservative flamethrower Tom Tancredo, then a Republican congressman from Colorado, introduced his version of the "anchor babies" bill in 2007, though like all its predecessors it was a political act rather than a legislative one. The topic is "like a code word -- it activates this whole bundle of issues about immigrants gaming the system and so on," says Rosenblum. "It's very strategic and calculated."
It also glosses over some seriously complex issues. The hard fact is that the U.S. economy has changed since the 19th century, when explosive industrial growth required a constant incoming migrant workforce. There's overwhelming evidence that though encouraging immigration improves a country's economic productivity and average income in the long term, the immediate impact is more variable. In a recent study, economist Giovanni Peri shows that, during times of economic recession, immigration has a negative impact on native employment and average income rates in the short-term -- largely because the legal immigration system isn't flexible enough to adapt to the needs of the labor market. Of course, unchecked immigration and naturalization rates aren't solely responsible for the feeble state of the modern U.S. economy. Still, any new policy on both legal and illegal immigration must fit the fluctuating, modern-day needs of the economy and labor market, rather than simply responding to the hopes or fears of the American psyche.
The American public knows this: The majority supports an immigration overhaul that includes both a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants and worker-visa reforms. The problem is that congressional leaders, cowed by the explosive politics surrounding the issues and recalcitrant lawmakers (including middle-of-the-road Blue Dog Democrats as well as Republicans), insist a comprehensive bill would be impossible to pass in the near future. If legislators ever took up the issue in seriousness, there might even be a place for reconsidering birthright citizenship on its socioeconomic merits. Countries such as New Zealand and Britain have modified their birthright citizenship laws to require that one parent is a citizen or a legal permanent resident, for instance. But as long as the discourse amounts to describing immigrant women giving birth in terms that recall farm animals -- "dropping a child" as a horse might "drop" a foal -- the movement seems doomed to irrelevance. If Lindsey Graham truly wants to change the 14th amendment, in other words, he'd be best off keeping his bright ideas to himself -- at least for now.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images