Dispelling “Anchor Baby” Myths

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The Pew Hispanic Center, which conducts stellar research on everything from health care to religion, released a report today quantifying just how many children are born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants. The report comes in the midst of a campaign by some Republicans to hold congressional hearings on whether children born to illegal immigrants should automatically become citizens. According to the Pew report, 340,000 babies were born in the U.S. in 2008 to at least one undocumented parent. And of all the children of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., about 80% were born here – the rest were born abroad.

These are significant numbers and they seem to add an arrow to the quiver of those in Congress and elsewhere now suggesting the 14th Amendment of the Constitution should be changed so that anyone born in the U.S. does not automatically become a citizen. Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham has been a leading voice on this idea, recently saying on Fox News:

“People come here to have babies. They come here to drop a child. It’s called ‘drop and leave.’ To have a child in America, they cross the border, they go to the emergency room, have a child, and that child’s automatically an American citizen. That shouldn’t be the case. That attracts people here for all the wrong reasons.”

But before rushing into that debate, Pew figures in hand, there are a few glaring questions unanswered by this new data set. For starters, how long were these illegal immigrant mothers in the U.S. before their children were born? The report itself does not answer this crucial question, so I called Jeff Passel, co-author of the report. He told me that based on the years that the report’s underlying data was produced, he knows that “well over 80%” of the 340,000 births cited in the report happened to women who had been in the U.S. more than one year. That blows a giant hole in the notion that mothers are crossing the U.S.-Mexican border just in time to give birth in American hospitals.

Another central question that’s not being explored right now – perhaps because while changing the 14th Amendment might score political points, it’s logistically incredibly difficult – is whether birthright citizenship actually exacerbates illegal immigration. Think about the term “anchor baby” – doesn’t it imply that having a baby in the U.S. who gets citizenship creates an foothold for undocumented parents, who might otherwise be more easily deported? Undocumented immigrants can get federal funds to help pay for health care and food for their citizen children, but most have no easier way to gain citizenship themselves. According to Politifact, “Having a child can also help an undocumented parent qualify for relief from deportation, but only 4,000 unauthorized immigrants can receive such status per year, and the alien has to have been in the U.S. for at least 10 years.” This is not exactly an anchor. See Politifact’s full report on this issue.

A related question is this: If their U.S.-born children wouldn’t become automatic citizens, would illegal immigrants choose not to have children in America? Would revoking this American right under our current Constitution actually really change anything on the ground? Hospitals that now care for undocumented immigrant women would most certainly still do so, even if their babies were similarly illegal. Would states, which control their own schools, disallow non-citizens from attending? What would be the social consequences of having an entire generation of these children grow up in the U.S. without being educated? What if a child was born to an undocumented father and a U.S. citizen mother? What about an undocumented mother and a citizen father? How do you prove this? Will the federal government require paternity tests before granting citizenship? These are the kinds of questions that need to be asked and explored to have a real debate on birthright citizenship. And, centrally, if some undocumented immigrants are coming to the U.S. solely to have children, is it citizenship they’re after? Or are there economic – i.e. jobs for parents – motivating them, along with better living conditions and a host of other contrasts between life in Mexico, say, and life in the U.S.?

The next question is more political. Is kicking up dust about the 14th Amendment really about stemming the tide of illegal immigrants, as Lindsay Graham and Rep. John Boehner suggest? Or does it have more to do with what’s reflected in a CNN poll out today showing that 49% of Americans support revoking the automatic citizenship clause in the 14th Amendment?

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