"Anchors" away

Posted: May 19, 2006 12:05 AM

In 1970, six percent of all births in the United States were to illegal aliens. In 2002, that figure was 23 percent. In 1994, 36 percent of the births paid for by Medi-Cal, California's Medicaid, were to illegals. That figure has doubtless increased in the intervening 12 years as the rate of illegal immigration has risen.

Any child born in the United States automatically becomes a U.S. citizen. He or she is instantly eligible for panoply of social services, food stamps and other forms of aid. When the child reaches the age of 21, he can petition to have his parents and siblings declared permanent residents.

The so-called "anchor baby" phenomenon is a hidden trap door beneath any guest worker program, because a significant number of guest workers will have babies while in the United States and will thus elude any effort to send them home. (There are other problems with guest worker schemes: the difficulty of enforcement, the creation of permanently alienated subgroups such as Europe has created of its Muslim immigrants, and the problem of uprooting even the non-citizen children of guest workers who have spent years in the United States.)

I happen to be a moderate on immigration. I believe that Republicans should tread carefully on reform lest they be perceived as anti-Hispanic. With the country divided so evenly between the two parties, Republicans cannot afford to alienate 12 percent of the electorate (and a group that is religiously and culturally open to the Republican message). While anecdotal evidence certainly suggests that the conservative grass roots are deeply agitated about immigration, their concerns must be addressed with finesse so as not to walk the party into a political buzz saw. That much having been said, here are some reforms that go beyond what Congress is currently considering.

-- Eliminate the "anchor baby" problem by changing the citizenship law. Most Americans take it for granted that the 14th Amendment requires birthright citizenship, but a number of scholars deem this to be a misinterpretation. The clause reads "All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof" are citizens. If the drafters intended to say only that all persons born on U.S. territory would be considered citizens, why did they add the phrase "and subject to the jurisdiction thereof"? Are those words superfluous? If not, what do they mean? In 1898, the same Supreme Court that decided Plessy v. Ferguson interpreted the clause to exclude only the children of diplomats. But this contradicts the statements of one of the amendment's key authors, Michigan Sen. Jacob Howard, who explained in 1866 that the citizenship clause, intended to ensure the rights of former slaves, "would not, of course, include persons born in the United States who are foreigners, aliens, who belong to the families of ambassadors or foreign ministers accredited to the Government of the United States..."

The United States is one of the only developed nations to permit birthright citizenship. Britain changed its law in 1981.

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last year, Professor John Eastman of the Chapman University School of Law acknowledged that Congress is often chary of directly challenging the courts on constitutional matters out of fear of provoking a deadlock between co-equal branches. But the courts, Eastman urged, have declared Congress's power over naturalization matters to be "plenary." It is past time to reconsider the birthright citizenship rule. It is simply too tempting a lure to poor pregnant women south of the border, and it will always undercut other immigration reforms.

-- Back to the melting pot. The United States absorbed proportionately more immigrants at the start of the 20th century than it is attempting to digest now. But our grandparents had one huge advantage: they believed in "Americanization." Immigrants were thrown into the cauldron we called the melting pot and emerged with slightly altered names, lost accents, a love of baseball and calling George Washington the father of their country. Yes, they lost something, but they gained infinitely more. Years of multicultural claptrap, bilingual education, political correctness and interest group politics have dulled our capacity to assimilate. And our lack of national self-confidence has in turn filtered down to the immigrants themselves, who see nothing odd about marching in the streets for their "rights" instead of asking politely for our indulgence. If we cannot recapture the will to insist upon Americanization, immigration will be our undoing instead of what it has always been, a great strength.