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Babies and the U.S. Constitution: Immigration Witch Hunt 2.0

August 12, 2010

Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce announced recently that he intends to overturn the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. On hearing this, the two questions that might leap to your mind are “Can he do that?” and “Why on earth would he want to?”

The answer to the first question is easy: No. A state cannot overturn a portion of the U.S. Constitution, and in this case Pearce has selected a particularly hard target. The second sentence of the amendment reads: No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Clear enough. This law is saying, “Back off, states. Don’t even think about messing with me.”

What Pearce and his cronies can do, of course, is start another protracted legal battle, like the one currently raging over the law Pearce authored, SB 1070, a fight that will end up in a Supreme Court test. But even with the Court slanted as it is today, it is unlikely that it would attempt to overturn an amendment to the Constitution that has withstood repeated challenges since it was passed in 1868.

Now the second question. Why would a conservative like Pearce, or his U.S. Senate counterpart, the repulsive Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, want to overturn this amendment? Aren’t they the guys who are constantly talking about protecting the sacred Constitution?

Not in this case—because there are babies involved. Pearce calls them “anchor babies.” Graham terms them “drop and leave babies.” And as far as these two are concerned, it’s open season on these children, the sons and daughters of undocumented workers in the United States.

“Anchor baby” is a racist term that implies immigrant women illegally cross the border (specifically from Mexico, although all Latinos fall into the Pearce/Graham crosshairs) specifically for the purpose of giving birth. They then have produced an “anchor,” a child which will guarantee them U.S. citizenship and carte blanche to a whole array of services paid for by U.S. taxpayers. These babies must be stopped, they insist. And the only way to do it is to rescind the 14th Amendment, which guarantees that any person born on American soil is automatically a U.S. citizen.

The original purpose of the 14th Amendment was to confirm that all enslaved people freed by the Emancipation Proclamation were in fact United States citizens. And the “hands-off” portion of the law was to protect it from Southern states attempting to pass their own laws depriving former slaves of these rights. Subsequent attempts to overturn the Amendment—such as one to prevent the children of Chinese railroad laborers from becoming citizens—were stopped dead in their tracks. There’s no reason to believe that this racist panic will play out any differently than the others did.

But in the meantime, a shameful new chapter in the undocumented worker witch hunt gives us a snapshot of how the radical right is whipping up panic over this issue. To listen to them talk, you’d think that immigrant robo-babies rocket directly from the delivery room to federal offices to secure for their parents what Pearce calls “access to the great welfare state we’ve created.” And the devious parents give birth to these children merely to grab benefits for themselves.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Having a child in the United States does not protect undocumented workers from deportation except in an extreme circumstance: for example, if the child was on life support, receiving complex medical care, and the removal of the family would endanger the life of the child. The odds of any protection from deportation, therefore, are slim to none.

Secondly, while it is true that an American-born child can potentially secure citizenship for his or her parents, it is a lengthy process filled with difficult requirements. The child must actually have reached the age of 21 before parental visas can be applied for. The child must be living in the U.S. and meeting stringent income requirements. And the undocumented parents must have returned to their native country for at least 10 years prior to the visa application date. If they are found to be here without legal documentation, they are barred from the procedure despite having a family member to sponsor them.

This is hardly the “anchor baby” cakewalk that the right-wing media describes.

Hate groups like FAIR and racist politicians like Graham insist that immigrant parents come here solely to have these babies. This, too, is not borne up by research. If a family must come here and cannot wait for the current Draconian process to grind forward (many visa categories have backlogs of 7 to 14 years, for a start), a pregnancy only adds to the stress. Such was the case with my grandmother, who was pregnant with my mother when her family fled to America. The difficulty of their entry into the United States and her lack of prenatal care caused her to die not long after my mother was born. Pregnancy is actually an added hardship for many immigrants.

In other cases, once a family is here, they might feel that they are, for the first time, in a safe enough environment that they can responsibly have a child. Although undocumented immigrants endure many difficulties and financial hardship, often their life in the U.S. is still more secure than it was in their native countries.

But recent research shows that two main reasons that immigrants come to the States are to earn an income and to be reunited with family members who are already here. It has nothing to do with babies, the timing of having babies, or securing rights via babies, despite the endless Fox News chatter.

And what about that gravy train of welfare handouts that “anchor babies” supposedly secure? The list that’s waved about by conservative politicians includes free medical care, free education, and untaxed income. Although it’s true that undocumented workers, like most lower-income people in the United States, have access to public schools and Medicaid, they pay far more into the system than they ever take out in benefits.

In one estimate, these workers pay approximately $90 billion in payroll and other taxes, and use about $5 billion total in services. Undocumented workers also contribute approximately $7 billion a year into the Social Security system, money they will never be able to reclaim later in benefits.

Conservatives who scream about taxpayers funding free schooling for immigrant children conveniently forget that property owners also pay taxes covering American children whose parents are unable to own property—and that the schools recoup benefits from larger student populations in terms of more state and federal funding.

When Arizona passed SB 1070, politicians declared that the law was essential because border crossings into the state had reached epic proportions; Senator John McCain said it was “the worst I have ever seen.” This manufactured crisis was masking the real truth: that the Arizona-Mexico border was more secure than it had been in decades, with numbers of apprehended immigrants down 60 percent from 10 years ago.

In a similar manner, the “drop and leave baby” crisis is a fiction to support a specific political agenda. And the rhetoric surrounding it would be comic if its intent was not so ugly. For example, Glenn Beck declared in June last year that the United States was the only country in the world that granted jus soli (“the justice of the soil”)—a ridiculous lie, since birthright citizenship is currently the law in 33 countries around the world. Debbie Schlussel has been warning about Al-Qaeda sending women here to “drop and leave” future terrorists on American soil. These “terrorist babies take root,” she claims, even after their parents leave the country.

Listen closely. If you do, behind these ravings you’ll hear echoes of Senator Edgar Cowan, a 19th century politician who thundered that if the 14th Amendment was not overturned, America would be overrun by Mongol hordes. The history lesson here: rabid racists will use any argument, no matter how absurd, in order to rationalize their actions.

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