Are ‘anchor babies’ a widespread problem?

Liz Goodwin

A new U.S. study finding that 1 child in 15 has an illegal-immigrant parent as of 2008 has helped stoke the heated national controversy around illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, about 1 U.S. birth in 12 was to an illegal-immigrant parent in 2008 — suggesting that the number of U.S. citizens with an illegal-immigrant parent is on the rise. And the debate over the legal status of these children (whom immigration-crackdown advocates pejoratively call "anchor babies") is gaining visibility as more Republican leaders are banking on an anti-illegal-immigration message in the 2010 midterms.

[Photos: Continued protest over immigration reform]

So what are the main issues in the debate over citizenship for native-born children of an illegal immigrant? Here's a brief rundown.

Arizona's harsh new immigration law has galvanized conservative activists — and the federal court decision striking down many of its components has helped turn this anti-illegal-immigration sentiment into anti-government sentiment.

Prominent Republicans including Sen. John McCain of Arizona and House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio have called for hearings on the 14th Amendment, which guarantees citizenship to all people born in the United States. They argue that the measure, approved in 1868, was intended to guarantee citizenship to slaves who were freed in the Civil War, not to the children of illegal immigrants. They say that people enter the country illegally in order to have children who are automatically U.S. citizens and who will "anchor" their parents to America.

[Is birthright citizenship really in the Constitution? Some experts say no]

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — better known for advocating for comprehensive immigration reform that would lead to a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country — has become one of the leading champions of altering the Constitution.

"People come here to have babies," he said on Fox News. "They come here to drop a child. It's called 'drop and leave.' To have a child in America, they cross the border, they go to the emergency room, have a child, and that child's automatically an American citizen. That shouldn't be the case. That attracts people here for all the wrong reasons."

However, people who study patterns of illegal immigration say that this statement is probably not true in the vast number of birthright citizenship cases. The co-author of the Pew study told Time's Kate Pickert that "well over 80 percent" of the 340,000 births to an illegal immigrant in 2008 were to a mother who had been in the country for at least a year, suggesting they did not come to the country specifically to have a child.

[How ending birthright citizenship could change immigration]

And "birth tourism" — in which people purportedly come to America specifically to have a child and then return with the child to their country — seems to be relatively uncommon. Experts told ABC News that some of the estimated 7,700 foreign moms who gave birth in 2006 could have been "birth tourists." But others might have been students at U.S. colleges, or on vacation.

Here's Graham talking about the issue of birthright citizenship, "anchor babies" and "birth tourism" (courtesy of Fox News):

Meanwhile, children have to wait until they are 21 to seek legal status for an illegal-immigrant parent. According to Politifact, "Only 4,000 unauthorized immigrants can receive such status per year, and the alien has to have been in the U.S. for at least 10 years."

The seemingly limited scope of the "anchor baby" phenomenon suggest that congressional Republicans may have trouble getting legislative traction behind their constitutional campaign against birthright citizenship. And even if Republicans were to manage to move a repeal of the 14th Amendment through Congress, they'd still face the cumbersome process of approving a formal amendment to the Constitution. Two-thirds of both the House and Senate and three-fourths of all state legislatures would have to vote to repeal it.

(Photo: AP. Jenny Aguilar, who is facing deportation, lies with her son Luciano, 2, who was born in the United States. Aguilar has lived in the country for 18 years.)

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