The state senator in Arizona who wrote the nation's toughest law against illegal immigrants said Tuesday he's collecting support across the country from legislators to challenge automatic U.S. citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants.
Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce's target is the 14th Amendment, but it is unclear how the state lawmaker can or will influence a federal statue.
"This is a battle of epic proportions," Pearce said Tuesday during a news conference at the Arizona Capitol. "We've allowed the hijacking of the 14th Amendment."
Pearce declined to say how the legislation will differ from similar measures that have been introduced in each two-year congressional session since 2005. None of them made it out of committee.
He and another Arizona lawmaker did argue that wording in the amendment that guarantees citizenship to people born in the U.S. who are "subject to the jurisdiction" of this country does not apply to the children of illegal immigrants because such families don't owe sole allegiance to the U.S.
The efforts by Pearce and the other lawmakers come amid calls to change the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment. Supporters cite costs to taxpayers for services provided to illegal immigrants and their children.
Changing the Constitution is difficult.
It requires approval by two-thirds majorities in both chambers of Congress, an impossibility now because Democrats have the majority in both houses and most oppose such a measure. Even if Republicans gain power in November and legislation is passed, an amendment would still need to be ratified by three-fourths of the states.
Paul Bender, a constitutional law professor at Arizona State University, said if the lawmakers focus their argument on the "subject to jurisdiction" wording, they won't get very far because the founders only meant it to apply to the children of foreign diplomats born in the U.S.
"If the British ambassador and his wife have a child in the U.S., that child is not a citizen because he is not subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S. We cannot put him in jail, we cannot even give him a parking ticket," Bender said.
The 14th Amendment "could have easily have said you're a citizen if you owe your allegiance, but our Constitution doesn't say that," he said. "It says if you're born here, and you're not a diplomat's child, then you become a citizen, and that's the way its been for 100 years."
Carlos Galindo-Elvira, vice president of Valle del Sol, a Phoenix group that provides social services to community members and advocates for immigrants, said Pearce's interpretation of the amendment is an effort to "legitimize bullying babies."
He also questioned why lawmakers would focus on this issue rather than the country's economic woes and high unemployment rate. "All it does is split the country," he said.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, the founder of a national group of legislators critical of illegal immigration, said the 14th Amendment "greatly incentives foreign invaders to violate our border and our laws." He had a news conference Tuesday in Harrisburg, Pa., on the multistate endeavor.
The effort could run afoul of the language in the 14th Amendment and lead to a court battle over the constitutionality of the law. But Metcalfe said providing birthright citizenship to children of illegal immigrants is an "ongoing distortion and twisting" of the amendment.
Metcalfe's office said lawmakers in at least 12 other states besides Arizona and Pennsylvania said they were making their own announcements about working on the citizenship legislation. Those other states: Alabama, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah.
Pearce was the main sponsor of a tough new Arizona law that would require police enforcing other laws to question people about their immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're in the U.S. illegally. It was to go into effect this summer, but a judge put on hold key provisions pending the resolution of a legal challenge.
Pearce also was the chief sponsor of a 2007 state law targeting employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the 2010 law and who is championing the state's legal defense of it against a court challenge mounted by the U.S. Justice Department, was noncommittal when asked whether lawmakers should approve legislation on citizenship.
However, Brewer said she was "always concerned" by the possibility of involving the state in a court fight. "No one wants to be in court. No one wants to be fighting the federal government," she said.