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Anchoring Equal Protections

Molly Lauterback,
Immigrants' Rights Project
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February 16, 2011

The Fourteenth Amendment, enacted in 1868 to guarantee citizenship to newly freed slaves, has come under fire recently from anti-immigrant politicians. For nearly 150 years, this Amendment has protected all children born on U.S. soil – regardless of their race and ethnicity or the status of their parents. With very limited exceptions, all children born here are given equal rights. Now anti-immigrant legislators are putting forth needless, divisive measures to undo this great American tradition.

Representatives from several states, including Indiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, have introduced legislation to revoke the right of birthright citizenship. Supporters of these measures claim that citizens of other countries are crossing into the U.S. with the goal of having babies within our borders, to ensure undocumented parents an advantageous familial connection within the United States.

Anti-immigrant politicians apparently do not understand that these sorts of proposals are entirely unconstitutional. Further, eliminating birthright citizenship would undo the fundamentally American goal of putting citizenship above racial or political prejudices and would lead to dangerous consequences. If these bills passed, racial profiling at hospitals would be rampant as administrators attempted to figure out the immigration status of parents. For fear of this, pregnant women and new parents would avoid hospitals, risking their health and the health of their infants. Hospital employees could make upsetting and costly mistakes by denying lawful residents birth certificates in the maternity ward. Children could be forced to carry government-issued documents at all times (documents that can be expensive and hard to get) in order to prove their status. Most distressingly, blameless children would be born into a second class, with their legal rights in limbo.

Because we at the ACLU believe in a land of equal opportunity where every child, regardless of race, ethnicity, or ancestry, is born with the same rights as every other U.S. citizen, we have joined a coalition to oppose these attacks on the Fourteenth Amendment.

Fortunately, it seems as though logic, law, and facts may be turning the tide against these proposals. In the last week, South Dakota, Montana, and Arizona all shot down attempts by state legislatures to amend birthright citizenship. Recognizing that hateful, xenophobic bills won’t fix our country’s immigration issues, lawmakers in these three states blocked what could have been dangerous threats to our nation’s civil liberties.

Montana’s House Bill 392 not only failed in the legislature but came under intense scrutiny by Gov. Brian Schweitzer who said that he would “veto any unconstitutional bills” such as this one. Opposition to the bill is strong and Niki Zupanic, public policy director at the ACLU of Montana, summed up criticism of the proposal when she said: “Bills like this, that try to rewrite the 14th Amendment, bills like this that try and say some citizens are better than others or some children are better than others [are] wrong — it’s un-American.”

South Dakota’s rejection of 14th Amendment proposal H.B. 1199 is also heartening. Rep. Manny Steele, who introduced the bill, said, “Our system is being abused, and this state compact is a method to correct this abuse.” Opponents to the bill included an organization of nuns who pleaded with the legislative panel to “Remember the innocent children.” The bill failed in an 8-5 vote last Monday.

The most significant failure of a birthright citizenship bill, however, came from farther south. The stoppage of Arizona’s SB1308 and SB1309 is a promising indicator of a backlash against birthright measures. Arizona has recently been in the limelight as the most infamous of the anti-immigrantstates, but lawmakers in the state are unraveling that reputation with a strong showing against 14th Amendment change. State Sen. Russell Pearce, who introduced the bills with fellow senator, Ron Gould, claimed that “illegals come here to have children only to gain access to welfare and benefits.” Fortunately, Gould and Pearce’s beliefs were in the minority. While the bill could be reintroduced, for now it lies dormant.

These three events last week indicate an important slowing of the anti-immigrant momentum we’ve seen in recent months. We are hopeful that the events of this last week reflect a growing recognition among responsible legislators that immigration reform won’t come from targeting individuals and revoking the protections our country provides but from a call for unity of purpose and pragmatic action consistent with our nation’s greatest ideals.

Learn more about citizenship at birth: Visit our Citizenship At Birth Under the 14th Amendment topic page. Subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, and friend us on Facebook.

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