The birthright debate

Monday, August 16, 2010

THE SERIOUS and necessary debate on illegal immigration has been hijacked in recent days by a sometimes hysterical fight over birthright citizenship. It is a nasty and wasteful diversion.

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution declares that "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." Children of foreign diplomats are generally excluded.

Some on the right argue that the Constitution should be changed to prevent U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants from gaining automatic citizenship, in part to prevent these "anchor babies" from being used to legitimize their parents' presence in the country.

Those on the left charge that the talk about changing birthright citizenship is evidence of deep-seated xenophobia; one activist argued that it puts the United States "on the brink of legalizing apartheid."

Neither of these arguments is valid. The great majority of undocumented immigrants come to this country looking for opportunities, just as generations of immigrants have done. According to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, the new migrants tend to be younger and of child-bearing age. Although abuses occur, in the vast majority of cases the birth of a child is a natural happenstance and not an attempt to manipulate the system. The attacks from the left, meanwhile, ignore or downplay the challenges posed by illegal migration and unfairly ascribe hateful motives to all who raise questions about possible fixes.

What is needed is not vitriol but serious legislation that provides a path to citizenship for those who have been in the country illegally but have otherwise been law-abiding, productive members of society. Last week's passage of a bill to beef up border security is a welcome step, but efforts to staunch illegal immigration should also include sanctions for employers who hire illegal workers and a reliable system for businesses to verify the status of potential employees.

Changing the Constitution should not be part of this solution. The 14th Amendment was crafted after the Supreme Court issued a notoriously bad decision in which it concluded that freed slaves and their U.S.-born children were not citizens. Since then, the amendment has been read broadly to bestow the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship on all of those born on U.S. soil, regardless of the race, faith, economic circumstances or legal status of the parents. And rightly so. This country of immigrants should not now turn its back on this noble legacy.

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