The American Bar Association will vote next week on a resolution urging the U.S. Congress to reject any changes to the Constitution that would eliminate the automatic grant of citizenship to anyone born in the United States.
The association, which is holding its annual meeting in Toronto, debated the issue Thursday ahead of next Tuesday's vote.
Some Republican lawmakers have called for legislation to repeal birthright citizenship; their proposed constitutional amendment has gained favor recently.
A proposal urging the U.S. Congress to reject such a change is expected be adopted by the ABA next week.
Former Judge Bruce Einhorn, a longtime civil rights activist in Los Angeles, said during Thursday's debate that to penalize children for where they were born _ a decision over which they had no control _ would be morally offensive.
"This is about our values," Einhorn said. He added that "it would be horrendous public policy" to deny citizenship to those born in the U.S.
But John Eastman, a conservative law professor at Chapman University in Orange, California, argued that it's an open question whether the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment allows for citizenship for anyone born in the U.S. and said it's time for the U.S. Congress to clarify the issue.
Eastman challenged a claim before the Supreme Court that Yaser Esam Hamdi, who was seized by U.S. troops on the Afghanistan battlefield in 2001, was a citizen because he was born in Louisiana while his Saudi parents were in the U.S. on a temporary work visa.
Eastman called it odd that a man who had little connection to the U.S. could be considered a U.S. citizen. The Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that Hamdi had the right to use U.S. courts to challenge his detention.
Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is based in Los Angeles, said the Latino community is most at issue in discussions about citizenship by birth and said it's hard not to see that the reinvigorated debate is really about opposition to demographic changes.
"You see in many of the comments by proponents concerns about demographic change in this country," Saenz said. "Yes. the 2010 census confirms that Latinos are now the largest minority group of the country. We are 16.3 percent of the population which means that nearly one in six Americans are Latino."
Saenz said the issue is closely tied to the efforts by some states, such as Arizona, to limit immigration.