Change U.S. law on anchor babies

By Al Knight, Denver Post, June 22, 2005


There's nothing quite as important as timing in politics. A fact that might go unnoticed for years can, at the right moment, help change the direction of national policy.

Consider the issue of anchor babies and what, if anything, should be done about them. Anchor babies, for those not yet familiar with the term, is the description given to babies of illegal immigrants who are delivered in the United States. These babies, under current interpretation of U.S. law, automatically become U.S. citizens and most qualify immediately for a variety of benefits, including Medicaid. Over time, they can open the door to citizenship to other family members.

Last week, there was a flurry of national news stories announcing the current estimate that 300,000 such babies are born each year in this country.

... Most people, however, would find the number somewhat shocking. Indeed, the news stories set off a new flurry of debate over whether the existing provisions relating to what is called birthright citizenship can or should be changed.

There is a special intensity in this discussion in some states - including California, Texas and Florida - with high anchor baby populations. But the issue is also being noticed in places like Georgia, where the number of anchor babies doubled from 5,133 in 2000 to 11,180 in 2002. Several years ago in Colorado, the number of such births was estimated at more than 6,000.

A measure pending in Congress would change the Constitution to deny citizenship rights to babies born to illegal immigrants. The proposed amendment is currently given little or no chance of passage but it certainly helps to focus attention on the nature of the problem.

More than a dozen years ago, Peter Schuck and Rogers Smith put it this way in their article "Consensual Citizenship," in the magazine Chronicles: "The present guarantee under American law of automatic birthright citizenship to the children of illegal aliens can operate ... as one more incentive to illegal migration and violation by nonimmigrant aliens already here. When this attraction is combined with the powerful lure of expanded entitlements conferred upon citizen children and their families by the modern welfare state, the total incentive effect of birthright citizenship may well become significant."

That passage was written in 1992 when the number of such births was estimated at less than 150,000 per year. Since then, the number has more than doubled.

The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that "all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States."

At the time the amendment was approved, the author of the clause, Sen. Jacob M. Howard, said the phrase relating to jurisdiction meant, "This will not, of course, include persons born in the United States who are foreigners ... ."

In subsequent years, the courts invalidated the assurances of Howard; at this stage, an amendment to the Constitution seems the only means available to change the law....

Not so long ago in Ireland, there was a policy of granting residency and possible citizenship to anyone who had a baby there. In Dublin hospitals, births to foreigners made up 25 percent of the total. That fact forced a change in Ireland's constitution in 2004. It now reads:

"Notwithstanding any other provision, a person born on the island of Ireland who does not have at the time of birth of that person at least one parent who is an Irish citizen or entitled to be an Irish citizen is not entitled to Irish citizenship or nationality unless provided by law."

Change a couple of words, and it is a safe bet that that amendment would receive a high level of popular support in the United States.

A Denver talk show host recently announced confidently that the current policy on anchor babies could never be changed in this country. But then, a few years ago, no one in Ireland thought that the country's constitution could be amended, either.

Al Knight of Fairplay is a former member of The Post's editorial-page staff. His columns appear on Wednesday.