Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, the father of SB 1070, has a new target in his cross hairs: "anchor babies," the ugly epithet used to label children born of undocumented immigrants. The senator's newest legislative provocation would allow Arizona "to refuse to accept or issue a birth certificate that recognizes citizenship to those born to illegal aliens, unless one parent is a citizen," as he recently explained to his supporters. Crudely labeled "anchor baby bills" by the media, similar efforts are brewing in California, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Congress. On July 28, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham became the latest to join the assault on birthright citizenship, calling it a "mistake" and announcing that he may introduce a constitutional amendment to deny automatic citizenship to the children of immigrants who "come here to drop a child." "To have a child in America, they cross the border, they go to the emergency room, have a child, and that child's automatically an American citizen," he said. "That shouldn't be the case."
Graham's rhetoric echoed that of e-mail, widely circulated by Pearce, that explains the logic behind the strategy: "If we are going to have an effect on the anchor baby racket, we need to target the mother. Call it sexist, but that's the way nature made it. Men don't drop anchor babies, illegal alien mothers do." This statement—which Pearce has publicly defended—comes from a man named Al Garza, identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a former top official in the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps and founder of the Patriots Coalition, whose website includes jokes about assassinating President Obama.
Pearce and his ilk are capitalizing on a concept with old nativist roots that is lending new potency to the assault on Latino immigrants. Fueled by bogus conspiratorial depictions of newborns delivered moments after their parents cross the border; "emergency alien deliveries" overrunning US hospitals and endangering American lives; and undocumented mothers having children in order to collect public benefits on taxpayers' backs, the anti-immigrant right is demonizing babies as the weapon of choice for armies of "illegals."
"It's invasion by birth canal," the leader of a California anti-immigrant ballot initiative told the Los Angeles Times. The head of an anti-immigrant group in Virginia called for an investigation into "whether or not illegal aliens have a preferred breeding season." According to Texas Republican Representative Ron Paul, "awarding automatic citizenship to children born here minutes after their mothers illegally cross the border" is "a matter of national security."
The "invading army" rhetoric is not accidental. The "citizenship clause," Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment, states clearly that "all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States." There are two exceptions: children of foreign diplomats and the children of invading armies. The latter lends itself perfectly to the kinds of xenophobic sound bites that whip up support for anti-immigrant laws.
Federal legislation aimed at denying citizenship to "anchor babies" dates back to 1995, when California Republican Representative Brian Bilbray invited members of Congress to visit San Diego hospitals and see for themselves "what we see in the parking lot": undocumented mothers waiting "to dilate, just so she can deliver her baby in a US hospital." That year, Bilbray garnered fifty-one co-sponsors for his Citizenship Reform Act, which would have denied "automatic citizenship at birth to children born in the United States to parents who are not citizens or permanent resident aliens." In 2009 Republican Representative Nathan Deal of Georgia scored ninety-two co-sponsors for his nearly identical Birthright Citizenship Act. "People thought it was on the fringe," Bilbray boasted in 2007, recalling his early efforts to outlaw birthright citizenship. "Now it's mainstream."
In Congressional testimony in 2008, James Edwards of the conservative Hudson Institute summarized the widely held misconceptions underlying the "anchor baby" myth. "The policy of granting automatic US citizenship to the 'anchor baby' effectively foils the parent's deportation, qualifies the illegal parent to derive benefits accorded to the newborn based on his or her citizenship, and allows that illegal alien to begin his own chain of relatives," he warned, calling on Congress to end the incentives immigrants have "for birthing their offspring in the United States."
Like the slur "anchor baby" itself, each of these claims is a fallacy. Far from "anchoring" their parents to US soil, many children born to undocumented immigrants are seeing them be deported. And for all the rhetoric spewed by the right about the need for tough new legislation to combat the immigrant "invasion," laws governing immigration to the United States have gotten more restrictive in the past fifteen years.
Today, a citizen must be 21 in order to sponsor the green card application of a parent or an immediate relative. The applicant must then show documentation proving that he or she has not been in the United States unlawfully for more than one year. Barring such proof—the primary obstacle most immigrants face—the parent must return to the country of origin for ten years before being allowed to lawfully re-enter the United States and resume the application process. This is commonly referred to as the "touchback rule," explains María Blanco, director of the Earl Warren Institute at the UC, Berkeley, School of Law, and it is among the most insurmountable restrictions placed on the legal naturalization process in the name of "immigration reform" passed in 1996.
"The new laws effectively sentence people to a ten-year separation from their families if they try to go through the application process," says Blanco. "When you read the statistics about how the undocumented population has increased, you have to realize how much of that is the direct result of blocking people from gaining legal status who, before, legitimately could."
Immigration reform also curtailed due process and blunted judicial discretion in criminal cases involving immigrant defendants, greasing the wheels of deportation proceedings. Many nonviolent misdemeanors were reclassified as aggravated felonies for this purpose. The result? According to a 2010 report by Berkeley and UC, Davis, 88,000 immigrants who were legal permanent residents and parents of children with citizenship were deported between 1997 and 2007, the majority for misdemeanors. In many cases, children have no choice but to go with their parents, which means that "we are de facto deporting American citizens," points out New York Democratic Representative José Serrano. To restore some judicial discretion in deportation proceedings involving parents, Serrano is sponsoring the Child Citizenship Protection Act, a measure crafted by the New York–based Families for Freedom, an organization led by immigrant mothers fighting detention and deportation to keep their families intact. In June, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously to ease the rules mandating automatic deportation for legal permanent residents convicted on minor drug charges.