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Ending Birth Citizenship Could Create Later Underclass
Patricia Zapor
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Monday, September 27, 2010
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WASHINGTON (CNS)—In this heated election season, one issue keeping debate simmering has been the suggestion from some members of Congress that the United States do away with birthright citizenship as it is defined under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

While the issue comes loaded with sound-bite furor over "anchor babies," and the theory that denying citizenship to all newborns will somehow reduce the number of people in the country who are without legal status, a new study shows the opposite effect would result from changing the law.

"It's a discussion driven as much by emotion as anything else," said Michael Fix, senior vice president and director of studies at the Migration Policy Institute, co-author of the analysis.

Much of the debate about birthright citizenship has involved the second clause of the 14th Amendment. Many legal scholars argue that it would take amending the Constitution to reverse what has been the status quo since 1868, when the 14th Amendment was passed, primarily to ensure full rights to former slaves.

But the current efforts take aim at the amendment's phrasing that citizenship is granted to anyone born in the country who is "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States. They argue that the clause could be reinterpreted by an act of Congress to exclude the offspring of people who are here illegally.

Three bills introduced in the House this session would attempt to do just that.

Proponents of ending birthright citizenship claim that it is a lure to people to enter the country illegally to have children here, so those "anchor babies" can provide their parents and extended family legal residency and U.S. citizenship. Doing away with birthright citizenship would discourage illegal immigration, they argue, and maybe even make some people who are here already go back to their home countries.

The reality is that only after a child turns 18 can he petition for his parents to become legal residents and the applicants must still wait their turn in line and meet all the requirements such as passing background checks. Having a U.S. citizen child does not protect parents from being deported.

Nor does having a U.S. citizen child entitle her parents, if they are in the country illegally, to any benefits such as welfare. Citizen children of undocumented parents may be eligible for food stamps, Medicaid and other basic forms of aid if the family meets income criteria. And a 1982 Supreme Court ruling said that children's immigration status—let alone that of their parents—may not be used to bar them from attending public schools.

The long-term effects of conferring different rights upon newborns depending upon their parents' immigration status has only recently entered the debate, and many questions remain unanswered. For instance, what is the legal status of someone whose parents were both born here but who was denied citizenship because of their parents' legal status? And, for how many generations will people born in the United States be penalized for their ancestors' immigration problems?

The analysis released this month by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute looked at some long-term consequences. It found that by ending birthright citizenship, the number of people in the country illegally would snowball, doubling the number of undocumented residents in the country from 2 to 4 percent of the population in 40 years and creating "a self-perpetuating class of unauthorized immigrants who would be excluded from social membership for generations."

Jennifer Van Hook, a professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University and a fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said that even assuming new illegal immigration stops immediately upon passage of a law, the population of people without legal status would grow as succeeding generations of offspring also would lack U.S. citizenship.

"While some are discussing an end to birthright citizenship as a means to reduce illegal immigration, such a move would in fact significantly increase the size of the unauthorized population," said Van Hook.

Under one of several scenarios tested, by the third generation, in 2050, 6.3 million people born in the United States would be here without legal status, many in spite of having two parents who were born in the country.

"This perpetuation of hereditary disadvantage based on the legal status of one's ancestors would be unprecedented in U.S. immigration law," Fix said.

Fix and Van Hook predicted how many people would lack citizenship or legal residency status under four scenarios: the status quo of citizenship being granted to all U.S.-born children; a rule denying citizenship to newborns only if both parents are in the country illegally; a rule denying citizenship only if the mother lacks legal immigration status; and a rule denying citizenship if either parent is here illegally, even if one parent is a U.S. citizen.

The bills currently before Congress would extend birthright citizenship to newborns with one parent who is a citizen, a legal permanent resident or "an alien performing active service in the armed forces."

The smallest increase in the undocumented population would occur under that second scenario -- if both parents are in the country illegally. The study projected that the population of unauthorized residents would grow from the current 11 million to 16 million, assuming there was no increase in people entering the country illegally.

Under the most extreme scenario—denying citizenship if either of the child's parents lacks legal immigration status—the population of people lacking legal residency, millions of them having lived nowhere else in their lives, would grow to 24 million by 2050, the study said.

The study assumed that unauthorized immigrants would continue to behave as they do now, with subsequent generations having children at the same rates as today.

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