Valeria Fernández and Elena Shore, New America Media
SAN FRANCISCO - Conservative religious leaders are warning that the move to repeal birthright citizenship goes against the values of America, the Republican Party and the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Galen Cary, director of government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), noted that his organization has a long history of affirming the rights of all groups. In 1956, the NAE passed a resolution on human rights, stating: “We believe that the teachings of Christ are violated by discriminatory practices against racial minorities.”
Those values hold true today, he said, and are directly reflected in the debate over whether U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants should be granted automatic citizenship.
In Arizona, meanwhile, a bipartisan coalition of civil rights leaders denounced the concerted nationwide effort to change or reinterpret the 14th Amendment to deny birthright citizenship.
“The 14th Amendment does not need repair. Our economy is in great need of repair—that’s where the Arizona legislators must focus,” declared Luz Sarmina-Gutierrez, president and CEO of Valle del Sol, a nonprofit organization that offers social services to Phoenix’s Latino community.
The widespread criticism by groups on every part of the ideological spectrum came at the end of a week in which the birthright citizenship issue moved to the center of the national immigration agenda.
On Wednesday, Arizona lawmakers Russell Pearce and John Kavanagh—two of the leaders behind the state’s controversial SB 1070 and a slew of other anti-immigrant bills—gathered in Washington, D.C., with a group calling itself State Legislators for Legal Immigration, to unveil model legislation aimed at challenging birthright citizenship in the federal courts. Lawmakers from at least 14 states pledged to introduce versions of the bill in their own legislatures, as well as a separate plan to include parents’ citizenship status on birth certificates.
In Congress, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) introduced his own Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011. King—who had been widely expected to be named chairman of the House immigration subcommittee, but was passed over by GOP leadership for the lesser known Rep. Elton Gallegly of California—said his goal was to clarify the meaning of the 14th Amendment to ensure that automatic citizenship is only granted to the children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.
"Gospel Values and Basic American Decency"
Religious and civil rights leaders blasted both pieces of proposed legislation. “The proposal [by King] to divide children born in America into two unequal classes, based on the identity of their parents, directly contradicts both gospel values and basic American decency and more than a century of constitutional law,” Cary said in a telephonic press conference organized by Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.
Pastor Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, called the push to repeal birthright citizenship “morally reprehensible.”
“In order to address the immigration crisis in America,” Rodriguez said, “we’re going to need a movement—a movement similar to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and late ‘50s by Dr. King.” And like that movement, he added, “It’s going to require the faith community to take the lead.”
Rodriguez is working with Dr. Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to launch the Fuerza (Strength) Movement at the end of January. One of the objectives, he said, is to push an “integration” strategy that is “not amnesty but not Arizona.”
“If the health care reform legislation prompted the emergence of a Tea Party movement, then I think the failure of the DREAM Act legislation at the end of last year, during the lame duck session, prompted a Hispanic social civil rights movement,” Rodriguez said.
Fears for Arizona's Economy
In Arizona, a variety of organizations expressed similar outrage and concern. Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox echoed worries about the effects of more anti-immigrant legislation—and the legal costs that would be incurred to defend such legislation—on the state’s economy.
“The image of Arizona has been hurt this last year—we need to clear it up,” she said. “We don’t need to attack babies in the guise of taking control of illegal immigration.”
“This proposal will create generations of children without a legal homeland, with no ability to contribute back to their own communities and no way to legally ever get a job,” added Dana Wolfe Naimark, president and CEO of the Phoenix-based Children’s Action Alliance, which advocates for children's rights in the state. “If their proposal were to pass, each and every American moving forward would have to prove their citizenship,” she said.
Referring to the intrusive new bureaucracy that would result, Naimark said: “Just picture TSA [the Transportation Security Administration] on steroids, and that’s what we will get.”
DeeDee Blase, founder of Somos Republicans, a nationwide organization of Latinos, warned that the birthright citizenship issue would divide the Republican Party, in part because it contradicts the GOP’s basic principles. “We are supposed to be the party of pro life,” she said.
Her organization has launched a campaign to denounce the use of the term “anchor babies” to refer to the children of undocumented immigrants.
“We are going to let pro-life leaders know not to endorse politicians that are behind these efforts,” she said.
Focus on Supreme Court
Bill Strauss, director of the Arizona Anti-Defamation League, pointed out that defining citizenship is an issue in the realm of the federal government, not the states. “I constantly hear from Russell Pearce the rhetorical question: ‘What is it about illegal that you don’t understand?’ I’d like to ask Senator Pearce: What is about unconstitutional that he doesn’t understand?”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1898 that anyone born in U.S. territory—with the exception of the children of diplomats and enemy combatants—is automatically a U.S. citizen. Legal scholars agree that any effort by Arizona and other states to repeal birthright citizenship would be immediately challenged in court.
But that’s exactly what Pearce, the new president of the Arizona Senate, and his supporters expect and want. The model legislation they introduced in Washington this week is designed to set off a legal battle that they hope will result in the Supreme Court reinterpreting the 14th Amendment.
The amendment, ratified in 1868 as part of the post-Civil War Reconstruction, was intended to ensure that children of freed slaves were granted U.S. citizenship. It says: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
Whether the authors of the amendment intended to include the children of undocumented immigrants has long been a matter of dispute, with the debate focusing on the interpretation of the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” Opponents of birthright citizenship argue that undocumented immigrants are not subject to U.S. jurisdiction. Other legal scholars disagree and say the Supreme Court settled that question long ago.