Why Not Restrict Citizenship? : Children born here to illegal residents should not have automatic entitlements.

<i> Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) is a member of the House subcommittee on immigration. </i>

Opponents of reforming our citizenship laws have burned up the airwaves and the fax machines during the past week with a lot of overheated rhetoric and stylistic excess. They decry as “radical” the proposal to deny U.S. citizenship to children born here to illegal immigrants. Radical? This idea, which I, a conservative Republican, initiated more than three years ago, has since been espoused by my Democratic colleague from Los Angeles, Rep. Anthony Beilenson, and now by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

Far from being radical, such restrictions on citizenship are actually the norm around the world. Only a handful of countries, virtually all of them in the Western Hemisphere, have policies granting automatic birthright citizenship to anyone born within their borders. Nearly every nation in Europe, Asia and Africa limits birthright citizenship to the children of citizens. In fact, the United Kingdom and Australia both repealed their U.S.-style policies during the 1980s. My proposal, however, would confer automatic citizenship on the children of legal resident non-citizens as well, denying it only to the children of illegal aliens. And there are good reasons to do just that.

It’s a documented fact that a growing number of women are illegally entering the United States just so they can give birth here and make their children American citizens. There are a number of reasons for this. First, these children are eligible for federal, state and local benefit programs, and having a citizen child is a virtual guarantee against deportation. Also, under our family unification policies, once citizen children turn 21, they can apply to bring the rest of their families here as legal permanent residents.


The growing number of families who are cynically exploiting this well-intentioned loophole in our citizenship laws are doing quite well, thank you. In Los Angeles County alone, there are an estimated 250,000 citizen children, all eligible for generous benefit programs. The estimated public cost statewide for these children’s health and welfare benefits is $542 million. Add to this education costs, and the total burden easily exceeds $1 billion a year--and will only continue to skyrocket when you consider that two-thirds of the births in Los Angeles County’s public hospitals are to illegal alien parents.

Other objections raised to reforming our citizenship polices can be answered as well.

For example, some argue that the reform would violate the spirit of the 14th Amendment. That amendment was drafted after the Civil War to overturn the infamous Dred Scott decision and to guarantee that recently freed slaves did not lose their citizenship rights based on action by the states. When the amendment was enacted in 1868, there were no illegal immigrants here because there were no immigration laws until 1875. The one Supreme Court decision dealing with the issue held, in 1898, that the child of legal residents was a citizen in accordance with the 14th Amendment. That’s exactly what my reform legislation would reaffirm.

Advocates of illegal immigrants also argue that reforming citizenship policies would create a permanent subclass, citing the situation in such nations as Germany and Kuwait. That analogy is false because those nations welcome guest workers but discourage or deny citizenship to them. I support the assimilation and naturalization of legal immigrants; my proposals focus solely on people who are here illegally.

What our opponents just don’t get is what we’re trying to accomplish: to regain control of our borders. To do that, we need to adopt a comprehensive approach, which is what my bills are designed to do. We need to strengthen the Border Patrol. We need to ensure that American jobs go to American citizens and legal residents. And we need to remove the other carrot that draws people here illegally--benefits. Citizenship reform is but one part of this plan.

We must close the back door of illegal immigration so that we can continue to hold open the front door of generous legal immigration. We need an orderly immigration policy because, if we’re honest, we have to admit that the Americans who are most impacted by illegal immigration are those who can least afford to be hurt--the poor, the less-educated, the disadvantaged, many of them members of minority groups themselves. They are the ones who need the entry-level jobs to begin the climb into the middle class and who are most in need of assistance programs.

Poll after poll shows that a solid majority of Americans--liberal, moderate and conservative--believes that reforms are necessary. And because immigration reform is inherently an emotional issue in a nation of immigrants, it behooves all of us to debate this issue with facts, not with emotions.