A posse of Tea Party Republicans in the U.S. Senate this week opened a new front in the crusade against birthright citizenship with draft legislation that would bar children of illegal immigrants from becoming citizens.
Sens. David Vitter of Louisiana, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah and Jerry Moran of Kansas say their bill requires the federal government to limit automatic citizenship to children born to at least one parent who is a citizen, legal resident, or member of the military.
The senators say a misinterpretation of the Constitution, which grants birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment, has led to tens of thousands of "anchor babies" -- children of illegal immigrants or foreign tourists, born in the U.S., who can in turn sponsor legal residency for their parents and extended families.
"It's astounding that the U.S. government allows individuals to exploit the loopholes of our immigration system in this manner," said Vitter during debate on the Senate floor. "It's obvious that Congress has the authority and the obligation to put an end to it."
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates 340,000, or 8 percent, of the 4.3 million newborns in U.S. hospitals in 2008 belonged to illegal immigrant parents. In total, 4 million U.S.-born, citizen children of illegal immigrants currently live in the country, according to the study released last year.
Republicans say a change to the law would also effectively end "birth tourism," or the practice of foreign women traveling to the U.S. with the express purpose of giving birth here so that their children would automatically have American citizenship. A nascent industry of travel agencies and hotel chains has emerged, seeking to profit from the business.
"It is a reprehensible practice," said Vitter.
But immigration advocates say the assault on birthright citizenship discriminates against children, who have no say in the matter, and is nothing more than a political ploy to rally the conservative base.
"There's no evidence that birth tourism is a widespread problem," said Michele Waslin, a senior policy analyst with the Immigration Policy Center. "There are ways to dealing with that issue without such sweeping changes. This is like using a sledgehammer, not a scalpel."
Of the 4.2 million live births in the United States in 2006, the most recent data gathered by the National Center for Health Statistics, only 7,670 were children born to mothers who said they do not live here.
Some of those mothers could be "baby tourists," experts say, but many could be foreign college students, diplomatic staff, or vacationers. The government does not track the reasons non-resident mothers are in the United States at the time of the birth or their citizenship.
The Republican senators' draft legislation released this week takes a different tact to the birthright citizenship issue than Vitter and Paul pursued earlier this year when they unveiled a plan to change the Constitution itself.
But with two thirds of both chambers of Congress and three-fourths of all the states needed top amend the document, the change was deemed highly unlikely to pass.
Waslin said the latest attempt to change application of the 14th Amendment in practice is also unlikely to pass muster in either Congress or the courts.
"The Supreme Court has upheld birthright citizenship several times," she said, "and the leading constitutional scholars agree you would have to change the Constitution, not just the Immigration and Nationality Act as they're trying to do here."