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.
Right now, it's simple: A birth certificate showing you were born in this country settles it. (Well, unless you're Barack Obama.) But once that rule is gone, all parents -- not just those who look or sound "foreign" -- would have to prove their citizenship.
Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney in Anchorage, Alaska, says that is not always as easy as it sounds. She often gets clients who assume they are citizens only to learn they are not, and she often gets clients who believe they are not citizens but actually are.
"It usually takes an expert immigration lawyer an hour to get through everything to find out," she told me. So intricately complex are the laws, she says, that "there are only a few hundred lawyers in the country who have the expertise to do it." For them, the repeal of birthright citizenship would be a full-employment act.
How complex are the laws? So complex that Obama might be a citizen even if he had been born in Kenya (which, let me emphasize, he was not). So complex that Winston Churchill, whose mother was American, could also have claimed citizenship.
Of course, you can always ask the kindly folks at the Department of Homeland Security to make the determination for you. But that option, says Stock, "is $600, it usually takes a year to do it, and they often make mistakes. Hundreds of people who are citizens have been told they're not, and hundreds of people who are not have been told they are."
Ultimately, she predicts, we would need a national citizen's registry, a national ID card and a host of federal employees to administer them. In the end, a lot more people would be subject to the unpredictable judgments of a distant bureaucracy.
Less comprehensible laws, administered by a larger and more powerful government? Consider it your birthright.