Steve Chapman

If two foreigners come here illegally and bear a child, the child automatically gains American citizenship. That fact drives some people around the bend. Last year, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said terrorists are sending pregnant women to have children on U.S. soil so they can "come back in 20, 25 years" to "blow us up."

Sure they are, congressman. And while they're here, they're putting LSD in the water supply. Unfortunately, the fear of "anchor babies," as they are known among anti-immigration activists, is spawning not only weird fantasies but actual legislation.

Earlier this month, a group of officials calling themselves "State Legislators for Legal Immigration" unveiled proposed legislation to deny state citizenship to children borne by illegal immigrants -- and, for that matter, many foreigners residing here with the full blessing of our laws.

It says that to be a citizen of a given state, someone must be born here and have at least one parent who "owes no allegiance to any foreign sovereignty." By a strict reading, it would exclude the children of many naturalized citizens who retain citizenship in their native lands (as allowed in Canada, Britain and Israel, among others). It would also bar those born to foreigners here on student visas -- or even permanent resident aliens.

The group claims to support "legal immigration." But this measure would punish the legal along with the illegal. A child could be born here, have two U.S. citizen parents and still be deprived of state citizenship.

The bill is most likely a grand exercise in irrelevance, since the Constitution leaves little room for legislating on this matter. The 14th Amendment says anyone born in this country (except to foreign diplomats) is a citizen of the United States and the state where they live. The feds can't prevent it, and neither can the states.

To deny birthright citizenship to the offspring of illegal immigrants, the opponents would have to do one of two things: persuade the Supreme Court to discard its longstanding interpretation or amend the Constitution. Neither is likely.

And what would the change accomplish? Nothing good. Illegal immigrants would keep coming -- simply to get better jobs and lives. Plenty of them, after all, have arrived with children who are also illegal.

But Americans in an expectant mode would suddenly face a new, universal obligation. If being born here is no longer proof of citizenship, then all new parents will have the burden of demonstrating that their babies are actually Americans.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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