Op-Ed, 654 words

Baby Scapegoats

GOP lawmakers are shamefully seeking to score political points at the expense of undocumented workers' children.

Raul A. Reyes

I’d like to welcome America’s first baby of 2011 to the world. Eighteen seconds into New Year’s Day, Peter Gabriel Imson was delivered on the U.S. territory of Guam. Named for the former lead singer in the band Genesis, little Peter Gabriel weighed in at 6 pounds, 13 ounces. Congratulations, kid! Now, after your next diaper change, some politicians from Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina would like to check your papers.

Unfortunately, I’m serious. Earlier this month, a group of Republican state legislators announced plans to address what they see as a pressing problem facing the nation: newborn babies.

The GOP lawmakers floated ideas like issuing distinct varieties of birth certificates, or passing “state citizenship” laws to curb the rights of the U.S.-born children of undocumented migrants. They say this is about fighting undocumented immigration. “We want to bring an end to the illegal alien invasion that is having such a negative impact on our states,” says Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican state representative from Pennsylvania.

It saddens me that the kids of undocumented immigrants are being scapegoated. The children in question are as American as you and I. The debate over their citizenship is nothing but a misguided, mean-spirited sideshow.

Metcalfe and his colleagues acknowledge that their plans might be unconstitutional. After all, birthright citizenship is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, which states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” In other words, if you’re born here, you’re an American.

The Republicans hope their proposals result in legal challenges, which will land the issue of birthright citizenship in the Supreme Court. Yet there’s over a century of settled case law supporting it. As far back as 1898, in U.S. vs. Kim Wong Ark, the Supreme Court ruled that a U.S. baby born to Chinese nationals was a citizen. At the time, the Chinese-American community was the object of widespread xenophobic furor.

GOP lawmakers, determined to gut this longstanding constitutional right, believe that guaranteeing citizenship to all children born on U.S. soil leads to “anchor babies.” This term is rooted in the false idea that an American-born baby can “anchor” an undocumented family in this country.

In truth, having an American-born child is no protection from deportation. According to the Department of Homeland Security, immigration authorities removed over 108,000 parents of American children between 1998 and 2007. The actual numbers are undoubtedly much higher, as DHS relies on information supplied by deportees who may be reticent to disclose the presence of their children.

Arguing against birthright citizenship, Arizona State Senator John Kavanagh notes, “Only a handful of countries in the world grant citizenship based on the GPS location of the birth.” Since other countries don’t confer automatic citizenship at birth, he reasons, neither should we. I find his viewpoint startling. America’s greatness lies in the unparalleled rights and privileges we enjoy. We set the standard for the rest of the world, not the other way around.

Undocumented immigration is a huge challenge, but stripping kids of their citizenship won’t solve anything. Immigrants come here to work. They may have babies here, but the magnet drawing them across the border is jobs. Wouldn’t it make more sense to declare war on the employers hiring undocumented workers, rather than on innocent children?

Ironically, ending birthright citizenship would only increase our undocumented population by creating a permanent caste of second-class citizens. These “illegal by birth” children would swell the ranks of the more than 11 million undocumented persons already here.

I’m disappointed in the lawmakers seeking to score political points at the expense of the children of undocumented workers. Punishing kids for their parents’ actions is simply inhumane and unfair. And it flies in the face of one of the core values of our society: whether we’re from Guam, Pennsylvania, or Arizona, all Americans are born equal.

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.