Anchor Babies 

Amid the furor, some context and perspective on the 14th amendment.


The latest salvo in the immigration wars — launched last month by Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — shows how willful inaction leads to desperation. The senator proposed hearings to debate amending the Constitution of the United States as a way to deal with an issue that should be handled via calm, bipartisan legislation.

Heading into the November elections, some on the angry right have decided to try and scare the American electorate with rhetoric about "anchor babies," defined as children born in the U.S. to undocumented persons. Rather than commit to the hard work of updating our outdated immigration laws, Graham and others would seek to deny citizenship to children born in the U.S.

The 14th Amendment guarantees citizenship to any person born on U.S. soil and was ratified in 1868 as a way of maintaining a uniform, national standard of citizenship — and, we must remember, granted citizenship to recently emancipated slaves who, prior to the Civil War and the 13th Amendment of 1865 (which ended slavery) were considered property, not citizens.

Naturally, given the historic circumstances under which it was ratified, the 14th amendment is considered a sacrosanct segment of our Constitution. Senators, who hope to use the amendment process of the Constitution to deny rights to fellow human beings, are woefully out of touch with the historic trajectory of this country; our citizens and leaders have worked to expand human rights, and Graham, an attorney by trade, ought to know this.

Unfortunately, Graham's talk represents a tried-and-true political tactic of generating fear before election time. Fear created around the concept of childbirth is especially insidious, and the term "anchor baby" is deeply troubling. It's a disrespectful, injudicious way of looking at a newborn baby, and the same crowd that insists on the "sanctity of life" seems uninterested in helping, supporting, or caring for children born in this country.

Graham has said, "People come here to have babies. ... They come here to drop a child. It's called drop and leave." Is this really the sort of unsophisticated, mean-spirited speech we expect from our senators?

This 14th Amendment movement appeared immediately after U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton ruled in July against key provisions of Arizona's state bill, signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer, which sought to essentially institutionalize racial profiling in that state. Bolton struck down the more onerous measures of the bill: Local police will not be required to check a person's legal residence during routine stops; immigrants do not have to carry proof of citizenship papers; and, in a nod to the First Amendment right to assemble, people, documented or otherwise, can continue to gather on public property to solicit work.

It's difficult to imagine a scenario whereby the anti-14th amendment crowd will succeed in changing the Constitution to deny a fundamental right enshrined in our society for almost 150 years. But we need focused, bipartisan leadership to remake our immigration laws, offering a pathway to citizenship for those who wish to regularize their immigration status (after payment of a fine), and passage of the DREAM Act, which would allow young high school graduates in the U.S. the opportunity to continue their education and become leaders in their communities.

We must prosecute employers who unscrupulously exploit the labor of poor people. America needs serious, sincere immigration debate. Most Americans are sophisticated enough to see through the posturing of politicians who offer little more than fear and smear — which is never a winning, or long-lasting, political strategy.

Bryce Ashby is a Memphis-based attorney, and Michael J. LaRosa teaches history at Rhodes College

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