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GOP Faction Wants to Change 'Birthright Citizenship' Policy

December 10, 2005|Warren Vieth | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For nearly 140 years, any child born on U.S. soil, even to an illegal immigrant, has been given American citizenship. Now, some conservatives in Congress are determined to change that.

A group of 92 lawmakers in the House will attempt next week to force a vote on legislation that would revoke the principle of "birthright citizenship," part of a broader effort to discourage illegal immigration.

The push to change the citizenship policy is backed by some conservative activists and academics. But it could cause problems for the White House and the Republican Party, which have been courting Latino voters. GOP officials fear the effort to eliminate birthright citizenship will alienate a key constituency, even if the legislation ultimately is rejected by Congress or the courts.

The principle at issue rests on the first sentence of the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868 to guarantee the rights of emancipated slaves: "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."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 24, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 127 words Type of Material: Correction
Birthright citizenship -- A front-page article Dec. 10 about some conservatives' congressional effort to change the rules that give anyone born on U.S. soil American citizenship said: "Upon reaching the age of 18, a U.S.-born child of illegal immigrants can petition to obtain permanent legal residency for his or her parents and siblings. Although it generally takes years for such requests to be approved or rejected, parents who receive visas then can begin the process of applying for full citizenship." Petitioners must be 21, not 18, and approval or rejection generally takes several months, not years. If the parents were living in the United States illegally, they could be required to return to their home countries for as long as 10 years before qualifying for legal residency.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 26, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 129 words Type of Material: Correction
Birthright citizenship -- A Dec. 10 article in Section A about some conservatives' congressional effort to change the rules that give anyone born on U.S. soil American citizenship said: "Upon reaching the age of 18, a U.S.-born child of illegal immigrants can petition to obtain permanent legal residency for his or her parents and siblings. Although it generally takes years for such requests to be approved or rejected, parents who receive visas then can begin the process of applying for full citizenship." Petitioners must be 21, not 18, and approval or rejection generally takes several months, not years. If the parents were living in the United States illegally, they could be required to return to their home countries for as long as 10 years before qualifying for legal residency.

Some lawmakers advocating tougher immigration laws contend that the amendment has been misinterpreted for decades. Conservatives maintain that although illegal immigrants are subject to criminal prosecution and are expected to abide by U.S. laws and regulations, they are not "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States in the full sense intended by the amendment's authors -- and their children therefore fall outside the scope of its protection.

Those who want to change the interpretation acknowledge that illegal immigration is largely driven by the hunger for jobs at U.S. wages. But they also say that for some immigrants, automatic citizenship provides another compelling incentive to cross the border. They note that the United States is one of few major industrialized nations that grant birthright citizenship with no qualifications.

"Illegal immigrants are coming for many different reasons," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), one of the lawmakers pushing for the House measure. "Some are coming for jobs. Some are coming to give birth. Some are coming to commit crimes. Addressing this problem is needed if we're going to try to combat illegal immigration on all fronts."

But the proposal may rankle Latino voters.

"This is about attempting to deal with a serious policy problem by going after people's babies.... It doesn't have to become law for this kind of proposal to offend people," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group. "This one really hits a nerve."

The 92-member House Immigration Reform Caucus, headed by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), wants to attach an amendment revoking birthright citizenship to a broader immigration bill scheduled to be taken up sometime next week. Although several revocation bills have been introduced in the House, the most likely one to move forward would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to deny automatic citizenship to children born in the United States to parents who are not citizens or permanent resident aliens.

There is no official tally of the number of children born to illegal immigrants; unofficial estimates range from 100,000 to 350,000 a year. Smith and other critics of current immigration law say that 1 in 10 U.S. births -- and 1 in 5 births in California -- are to women who have entered the country illegally.

Upon reaching the age of 18, a U.S.-born child of illegal immigrants can petition to obtain permanent legal residency for his or her parents and siblings. Although it generally takes years for such requests to be approved or rejected, parents who receive visas then can begin the process of applying for full citizenship.

Because of the length of time involved, some immigration experts say that birthright citizenship is not a major incentive for the vast majority of illegal entrants.

"No, absolutely not," said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. "It's something that a few middle-class professional people do. I have never met a poor person who has his wife walk across the desert at eight months pregnant so they can wait 21 years to be sponsored by their child."

Harry Pachon, executive director of USC's Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, said there were undoubtedly some immigrants for whom birthright citizenship was a significant incentive. "But is it in the hundreds of thousands? I don't think so, and there's no evidence to support that," Pachon said.

Still, opinion polls suggest that many Americans consider it a major problem. A November survey by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen found that 49% of those surveyed favored ending birthright citizenship, while 41% were opposed to any change.

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