Constitutional Cuisinart

OC congressmen try to chop U.S. birthright out of the 14th Amendment

The list of foreign crises facing the U.S. Congress is formidable. In Kosovo, Serb soldiers are shooting Albanian men, women and children despite international outrage. In Iraq, the president carries on a low-intensity war. Southeast Asian countries-formerly known as Tigers-are now toothless, teetering on the edge of economic collapse. In Russia, the frail President Boris Yeltsin emerged from a sanitarium just long enough to fire some cabinet minister while the mysterious paratrooper General Alexander Lebed rules Siberia-and its nuclear stockpiles-as a warlord.

Are these the issues to drag congressional Republicans away from consideration of the president's blowjobs? Hardly.

While the world burns, Congress fiddles. On Jan. 6, having voted to impeach President Bill Clinton, Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) and seven other congressmen sponsored House Judiciary Resolution 10 (HJ Res. 10), a constitutional amendment providing "that no person born in the United States will be a United States citizen unless a parent is a United States citizen, is lawfully in the United States, or has a lawful immigration status at the time of birth."

To say the least, this is a radical change in the Constitution's 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States." Should the amendment pass (an unlikely scenario, since two-thirds of the House and Senate and three-fourths of the states must ratify it), it would create a new class of Americans: second-generation aliens. A class typically associated with Europe, these are children born in this country who lack the rights and privileges of citizenship.

To Republicans like Rohrabacher and Royce, this change is desperately needed. Royce didn't respond to repeated requests for comment, but Rohrabacher spoke readily.

"It's a major problem for our country that pregnant women around the world believe they can improve the lives of their children by getting to the U.S.," he said. "We have become a magnet for all the pregnant women of the world."

Rohrabacher didn't stop there. "They're really taking money from the pool of resources we have for poor people," he added. "That money is being depleted. I have no doubt that most who come here are good people, but there is an endless flow of them." When asked why he felt it was necessary to end one of the principles the country was founded on, Rohrabacher said: "The country has changed. We do not have unlimited resources for everyone in the world."

Rohrabacher's charge that illegal immigrants are "depleting" federal resources for poor people is nonsense; by far, the greatest federal expenditures are transfer payments to retirees. But more to the point, a 1994 UC Irvine study showed illegal-immigrant Latinas -the same demographic Rohrabacher charges is undermining America-use few public services.

Upon hearing of the proposed amendment, Art Montez of the League of United Latin American Citizens expressed simple disgust. "These guys are legislative extremists," he said. "They're no different from the right-wing guys trying to rewrite the Constitution-they just use legislative terrorism."

Cecilia Munoz was more bemused than angry. "There have been various incarnations of this introduced in the last few congresses," said the vice president for policy of the Washington, D.C.-based organization National Council of La Raza. "It's pretty clear this is not a good idea, and it suffers a whole host of problems."

One of the biggest practical problems, Munoz pointed out, would be the difficulty of tracking mothers about to give birth and determining their citizenship status. "For many of us, this is based on ethnicity," said Munoz. "This means mothers with Hispanic last names will have to carry a lot more in their bags when they go to give birth."

Then there is the 14th Amendment itself, which was ratified to eliminate forever the possibility of breeding slaves in the U.S. In 1995, while testifying before a House subcommittee then debating a similar rewriting of the 14th Amendment sponsored by Representative Brian Bilbray (R-Imperial Beach), Columbia University constitutional-law professor Gerald Neuman described how the amendment's framers designed it to protect every ethnic group from political whims and prejudices. As an example, Neuman described Senator Edgar Cowan (R-Pennsylvania), who in 1866 vehemently opposed the amendment because it would prevent the Pacific states from "dealing with [Chinese immigrants and their children] as in their wisdom they see fit." Cowan's opposition led to nothing.

That's exactly where the current amendment seems headed. Although introduced in early January, HJ Res. 10 has elicited no debate or committee action. "It's just in the hopper now," said Rohrabacher. "But if it were up to me, it would be acted on."

For that reason, activists like Montez want things to change-radically. "The new California Legislature and the new Latino leadership should take note that the only way to remove these people is to reapportion them out-to make their districts disappear," he said.

 
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