Sherry Jacobson - As Republican members of Congress press for changes to the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, preventing automatic citizenship for babies born to illegal immigrants, opponents insist the debate is not really about babies.
Instead, they say it is about politics and votes – not fixing the immigration system.
Still, the debate could resonate in Texas, where not only 1.5 million illegal immigrants are estimated to reside but at least 60,000 babies are added to their households annually.
Parkland Memorial Hospital delivers more of those babies than any other hospital in the state. Last year at Parkland, 11,071 babies were born to women who were noncitizens, about 74 percent of total deliveries. Most of these women are believed to be in the country illegally.
State Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, accused Republicans of using the births to generate an explosive election issue.
"They're pulling the pin on the immigration grenade," he said. "It's all about the November elections and continuing to use the immigration issue as a wedge to win votes this fall."
But to Republicans, the emerging national debate is long overdue, considering that millions of immigrants have been living illegally in this country for years.
"They're violating our law, and we're giving their children the benefit of U.S. citizenship," said state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, whose 2009 bill in the Legislature would have challenged the birthright of immigrant children.
That bill died in committee, although Berman has vowed to file another version next year that would prohibit the state from issuing birth certificates to the children of "illegal aliens."
"I've checked the Congressional Record for when the 14th Amendment was written, and the author was quoted as saying that it did not apply to foreigners," he said. "There's no question in my mind about it."
The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868 as a way to block state laws that prevented former slaves from becoming citizens. It also effectively overruled the Dred Scott decision of 1857 in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that slaves were mere property and could not become citizens.
The amendment offered a broad definition of citizenship in one simple sentence: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States."
Donald Kerwin, a vice president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., said he feared that altering the current interpretation of that law "would essentially restore the Dred Scott reasoning and create a hereditary underclass in the United States.
"These children, who didn't break any laws, would have no rights and nowhere to go," he said. "It's a very extreme position."
The effort to reinterpret the 14th Amendment has been talked about for years and been targeted by numerous congressional measures that went nowhere. Last year's unsuccessful Birthright Citizenship Act, which had about 100 co-sponsors in Congress, would have required at least one parent to be a U.S. citizen for a baby to become an American citizen at birth.
The difference in this year's effort to change the 14th Amendment is that prominent Republicans are offering their support and making public statements demanding a national debate of the issue.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called Wednesday for a review of "birthright citizenship," after concluding that illegal immigrants had taken advantage of the post-Civil War constitutional provision.
"We need to have hearings," he said. "We need to consult constitutional scholars and study what the implications are."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he might introduce a constitutional amendment that would repeal the citizenship provision of the amendment.
And both Arizona Republican senators, John McCain and John Kyl, announced that the time was ripe for such a change.
"If both parents are here illegally, should there be a reward for their illegal behavior?" Kyl said recently on a Sunday morning talk show.
Changing the Constitution, however, is not as simple as getting a bill through Congress by majority vote.
Amendments have to be approved by a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, then ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures. It has happened only 27 times in U.S. history, most recently in 1992 in reference to congressional pay increases.
This latest effort would fall far short of tackling the entire Latino population now living illegally in the U.S. – the 11 million to 12 million people, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center – because it would target only the children.
That distinction has drawn an outcry from some, who believe the U.S. should be embracing its growing diversity rather than trying to disenfranchise the youngest elements of it.
"Babies are born without awareness, while other individuals chose to migrate because they want something," said Dr. Jacobo Kupersztoch, an associate professor at Richland College. "If we want to grow and we want to continue to be on the top of the world, we have to continue to integrate these people into our system."
16 percent of births
In Texas, between 60,000 to 65,000 babies achieve U.S. citizenship annually by being born in the state's hospitals, according to a tally released by the state's Health and Human Services Commission. Last year, such births represented almost 16 percent of the total births statewide.
Between 2001 and 2009, births to illegal immigrant women totaled 542,152 in Texas alone.
"The next 10 years will be an even more transformative decade demographically for Texas," said Dr. Roberto Calderon, an associate history professor at the University of North Texas and a Latin American expert following the debate.
He speculated that the Republicans probably were aware of this ongoing demographic shift and how it might threaten their party since Hispanic voters tend to support Democrats.
"Manipulating the status ... the rights and the opportunities for Latinos is the only avenue many on the conservative right see as a solution to remaining viable electorally," he said. "They're expecting what used to be safe Republican seats on the state and federal level will no longer be so safe."
However, Dr. Steve Murdock, a past director of the U.S. Census Bureau, said it would be difficult – even impossible – to turn this demographic tide by targeting the legal status of future births.
"It might slow it down some," he said. "But the idea that the majority of Texas Hispanics are illegal is ludicrous. The vast majority are citizens."
Murdock, previously the state's chief demographer and now a professor at Rice University, said the growth of Hispanics as a group in Texas has more to do with their relatively younger ages than the Anglo majority and their higher birthrates.
"In the last decade in Texas, over 60 percent of the state population increase was due to Hispanics," he said. "The idea that the growth of Hispanics is sudden or happened only in the past few years or only in Texas is not correct."