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Legislators in states plan laws to redefine citizenship

A group unveils proposals that states can use to force the Supreme Court to reinterpret the 14th Amendment. A lawmaker says they would slow down an 'illegal alien invasion.'

January 06, 2011|By Brian Bennett, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — A group of state legislators came to Washington on Wednesday to unveil legal language they say is a blueprint for states to pass immigration laws that might force a Supreme Court review of the 14th Amendment, which grants U.S. citizenship to any child born on U.S. soil, regardless of the parents' citizenship.

The group is pushing state legislation that would take two approaches: It would create two tiers of birth certificates, one of which states would produce only for babies born to U.S. citizens and legal residents; and it would attempt to skirt laws stipulating that the federal government defines U.S. citizenship by adding a second level of "state" citizenship.

Experts say such laws would be challenged as unconstitutional before they were ever implemented. The legislators' group says it welcomes such opposition. It sees a multitude of court fights in several states as the best vehicle to force the Supreme Court to consider a reinterpretation of the 14th Amendment.

The announcement is the latest salvo by some lawmakers in statehouses and Congress who seek to restrict who receives the right of citizenship. Denying citizenship to a specific group of children born in the U.S. would create a "modern-day caste system," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The 14th Amendment, part of a package of Reconstruction laws passed after the Civil War, guaranteed citizenship to freed slaves. For more than a century, it has been interpreted by the courts to protect the U.S. citizenship rights of American-born Chinese children, Native American children and children born to Japanese American families when their citizenship was challenged during World War II.

It is "extremely doubtful" that the Supreme Court would be willing to hear a case on this issue, said Walter Dellinger, a Duke University law professor and former solicitor general under President Clinton.

"It is one of the great civil rights achievements of the United States," Dellinger said. "This issue is raised in every instance in a racial context. It is always a divisive issue."

Lawmakers from at least five states said they planned to take the suggested laws back to their legislatures for consideration. Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican state representative from Pennsylvania who founded the group that brought together lawmakers from 14 states, said the laws would help slow down an "illegal alien invasion."

When Danny Verdin, majority whip for the South Carolina state Senate, took the lectern at the news conference to explain his intention to introduce the proposed laws in his state, he raised the coming April commemoration of Confederate troops firing on Ft. Sumter in Charleston, S.C., at the start of the Civil War.

"South Carolina may have been out front leading 150 years ago at Ft. Sumter, but we are happy to work collaboratively on this to cure a malady," said Verdin, a Republican.

As Verdin went on to say that he had dozens of colleagues in South Carolina eager to draw up the bills, a protester shouted, "I cannot ignore this inhumane and racist bill!"

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who takes control of the immigration subcommittee in the House this week, has said he would like to see the Constitution changed. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) sparked a firestorm in August when he said he would consider introducing a constitutional amendment to prevent the children of illegal immigrants from becoming citizens.

Henderson called such rhetoric an "assault on the integrity of the Constitution. This issue was resolved over 100 years ago."

brian.bennett@latimes.com

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