Citizenship by Birthright Up for Debate

The Associated Press
Monday, May 22, 2006; 5:30 PM

NORCROSS, Ga. -- Laila Montezuma was 16 when she sneaked across the Rio Grande from Mexico with her mother, only to be abandoned by the smuggler paid to get them into the United States. They had to hire another "coyote" to reach Houston.

But Montezuma's own daughter will be spared those struggles. Even if Montezuma and her husband are both deported for being illegal immigrants, little Alma could eventually return to enjoy the opportunities her parents sought here.

"She's not going to have to fight for anything for the simple fact that she was born here," Montezuma said as her infant daughter played in a waiting room at a pediatrics clinic in suburban Atlanta.

About 2 million families face the risk of being split up because the children are U.S.-born citizens but the parents are illegal immigrants. At least one lawmaker has proposed ending citizenship by birthright, restricting automatic citizenship at birth to children of U.S. citizens and legal residents.

The United States has one of the most liberal citizenship policies in the world, granting citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil based on an 1868 constitutional amendment. About 3.1 million children are U.S. citizens by birth, even though one or both of their parents are here illegally, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Supporters of that measure say it is the only way to fully integrate immigrants.

"A person has a stake in the society where they are, and you can't beat that as an integration measure," said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

But critics who want to eliminate the right insist it is a magnet for illegal immigration and an obstacle in efforts to deport millions of illegal immigrants.

"It's not as large a magnet as jobs, but it will be easier to solve the problem of illegal immigration if we avoid the mixed-family situation," said Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., who tried unsuccessfully to revoke the citizenship-by-birth right in the immigration bill passed by the House in December.

Deal and other advocates of stricter controls say immigrants come to the U.S. in part to have "anchor babies" _ children who can offer their parents some immunity from deportation and then petition for them to receive green cards after turning 21. But just how many immigrants do so is unclear.

Border Patrol agents rescue one or two immigrants in labor every year.

Daniel McClafferty, part of a Border Patrol medical team, found an 18-year-old woman in shock with her newborn daughter last month about 20 miles north of the border in the desolate foothills of the Arizona desert.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Associated Press