Monday, August 23, 2010

Birthright Blunder

A number of Republican congressman and others are talking about amending the Constitution so that children of illegal immigrants who are born in this country would no longer automatically be granted citizenship. If they are serious, this is bad policy. If they are simply engaged in election year pandering, it is bad politics.

In recent weeks, such figures as House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio, Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona have all said the idea of changing the rules on what is termed "birthright citizenship" should be examined.

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

Graham has called this "a mistake." He and others have suggested hearings on a possible constitutional amendment. Graham in particular has said, "(P)eople come here to have babies."

According to a recent report by the Pew Hispanic Center, about 1 in 12 babies born in the United States in 2008 was the child of illegal immigrants. However, Pew demographer Jeffrey Passel told the Wall Street Journal that more than 80 percent of illegal immigrant mothers who gave birth in this country did so only after being here for at least a year or longer. Many had been in this country for about a decade, Passel added.

Mounting a constitutional amendment effort is a large task.

It won't be accomplished with a Democratic majority in Congress.

Even if the GOP gains control of one chamber of Congress in the fall elections, it is unlikely.

While such talk may whip up some parts of the Republican base who are frustrated with the federal government's efforts to deal effectively with immigration, it will distract from sensible immigration reforms that have been suggested first by former President George W. Bush and most recently by President Barack Obama.

These include securing the border, to be sure, but also a system of guest worker permits that would allow migrants to work in this country legally and also allow for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents to better monitor cross-border traffic.

A way must be found to grant the 11 million undocumented aliens a route to legal residency here with appropriate fines and waiting periods.

Changing the Constitution, even if it could be done, would throw more than a century of immigration law into disarray. Immigration law is difficult to enforce now.

Without the bright line of birthright citizenship in which all children born here are automatically citizens, it would be even more difficult to administer.

And it would turn the United States into a different kind of country — one that is less admirable.

Finally, from a purely political point of view, this kind of talk is simply unwise for Republicans. Ultimately, their political calculations are their business but alienating a large and growing segment of the population — Hispanics — doesn't seem very smart.

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