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Baby Baiting | The Nation

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Baby Baiting

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The notion that "anchor babies" are a means of reaping government benefits for undocumented parents can also be easily debunked. Federal welfare reform passed in 1996 disqualified most immigrants, including most legal permanent residents, from receiving almost all forms of public assistance and imposed a five-year waiting period on applications for assistance on all future immigrants. Researchers estimate that these new restrictions accounted for more than half of the vaunted savings during the first year of welfare reform. At the state level, claims like Pearce's, that immigrants are flocking to Arizona to have children and "gain access to the great welfare state we've created," are particularly absurd. According to a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count project, Arizona ranks fortieth in the nation in overall child well-being and forty-sixth in high school dropout rates. "If someone was looking for a great place to go to raise a kid, Arizona wouldn't be one of them," says Laura Beaver, national coordinator of the study. In fact, it's easier to make the case that immigrant families are advancing the welfare of Arizona: children in immigrant families in the state are more likely to live with two parents and to have a father in the home who is working full time, year round, than children in nonimmigrant families.

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Robin Templeton
Robin Templeton, a writer based in Brooklyn, New York, is a PhD candidate in the CUNY Graduate Center’s...

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In response to a crime wave, police are imprisoning a record number of nonviolent offenders.

Four hundred teenagers converged outside the four-star Hilton hotel in San Francisco, then pushed inside the plush lobby with whoops and chants.

The hysteria over "anchor babies" has made hospitals useful symbols for the fearmongering right, which warns that undocumented immigrants are endangering the healthcare system. New York's Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who once claimed that pregnant immigrants forced Southampton Hospital's maternity ward to close, puts it this way: "You don't want to be inhumane and turn away someone who's bleeding, but the healthcare system might implode." In fact, Silvia Henriquez, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, says the opposite is true. "Given the limited access that immigrant families already have to healthcare, this xenophobic climate toward immigrants makes women afraid to seek prenatal and pediatric care."

The climate Henriquez describes became even more chilling in July, when anonymous Utah residents calling themselves Concerned Citizens of the United States sent a list of 1,300 names labeled "Illegal Aliens" to state law enforcement, the governor's office and local media, calling for the immediate deportation of all the people on it. The list included not only personal and work addresses and Social Security numbers but also the names of pregnant women along with their scheduled delivery dates. Utah officials say the private information was unlawfully released by two employees of the Utah Department of Workforce Services, one of whom has been fired. A criminal investigation by the state attorney general is under way. "Clearly, it's not even meant as a blacklist," says Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. "It's more like a hit list."

"Anchor baby bills" may be getting disturbing traction in an era when even the president is being called upon to show his papers. But that doesn't mean they will necessarily have long-term legal success. Citizenship by place of birth, jus soli, is a centuries-old tradition in English and American common law and jurisprudence, dating back to the Declaration of Independence. The Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision in 1857 temporarily interrupted the tradition, ruling that African-Americans were not and could not ever become citizens and "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." A short decade later, slavery was abolished and the Fourteenth Amendment was written with the clear intent of granting citizenship on the basis of "the objective measure of US birth rather than subjective political or public opinion," explains Elizabeth Wydra, chief counsel at the Constitutional Accountability Center. With recent polls finding that 58 percent of all likely US voters—and 64 percent in Arizona—think a child "born to an illegal immigrant in this country should not automatically become a citizen," Wydra notes that "the current, inflammatory invocation of 'anchor babies' by opponents of birthright citizenship confirms the good judgment of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment in placing the question of citizenship beyond the 'consent' of the majority."

Even Steve Levy, who continues to warn that undocumented workers are putting the health of Americans at risk, acknowledges that efforts to deny birth certificates to children of undocumented immigrants are not likely to work. "Every hospital takes the view that the Constitution says you have to give a birth certificate to every child born there. I don't think these laws are going to stand up in court," he says. "But you can understand where these states are coming from—the problem is so at the local level that they're willing to try anything."

Ira Glasser, head of the ACLU from 1978 until his retirement in 2001, explains that this rogue "try anything" approach serves a strategic purpose. "The right wing loves to run against the federal courts. What they're doing isn't really about legislation or litigation but part of a larger political and public relations strategy—each failure becomes another opportunity to build their movement."

This is why Texas Solicitor General James Ho concluded his analysis of the anti-immigrant challenges to birthright citizenship by advising, "Stay tuned: Dred Scott II could be coming soon to a federal court near you."

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