Debate Over Birthright Citizenship Aims at 'Baby Tourists'

The battle against so-called "baby tourism" seemed to get a new warrior after remarks made by Sen. Lindsey Graham during an appearance last week on Fox News.

Graham proposed to change the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which grants American citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil. As the law now stands, pregnant women -- so-called baby tourists -- can travel to the U.S. to give birth and then return home with their children, who would still be U.S. citizens.

VIDEO: Checking claims that people come to U.S. so their babies will be citizens.Play
'Birthing Tourism': Myth or Reality?

"Birthright citizenship, I think, is a mistake. ... People come here to have babies. 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," said Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

"That shouldn't be the case. That attracts people here for all the wrong reasons," he said. The concern is these so-called "anchor babies" will then sponsor their families for legal residency -- albeit 21 years later.

'Birth Tourism': Fact or Fiction?

There is an industry of travel agencies and hotel chains catering to "baby tourists" -- but just how large is it?

The Marmara Manhattan, a Turkish-owned luxury hotel in New York City, markets birth tourism packages to pregnant women abroad, luring more than a dozen expectant guests and their families to the U.S. last year.

"What we offer is simply a one-bedroom suite accommodation for $7,750, plus taxes, for a month, with airport transfer, baby cradle and a gift set for the mother," Marmara Hotel spokeswoman Alexandra Ballantine said.

The hotel estimates the total cost of the package at $45,000; most women make medical arrangements on their own.

"Guests arrange and pay for these by themselves," Ballantine said of hospital costs that can approach $30,000.

Birth Tourists -- Widespread Phenomenon?

But does one hotel mean there's a widespread phenomenon?

Of the 4,273,225 live births in the United States in 2006, the most recent data gathered by the National Center for Health Statistics, 7,670 were children born to mothers who said they do not live here.

Some, but not all, of those mothers could be "birth tourists," experts say, although it is difficult to know for sure. Some are presumably foreigners on vacation in the U.S. or students at U.S. colleges and universities. The government does not track the reasons non-resident mothers are in the United States at the time of the birth or their citizenship, meaning births to illegal immigrants who live in the United States are counted in the overall total.

In recent years, many women have come from Mexico, South Korea, China and Taiwan, but the trend now extends to countries in Eastern Europe, such as Turkey.

The business of birth tourism is perfectly legal as long as immigrants are able to pay their own way.

Critics contend that children born to non-resident immigrants can then sponsor their parents and families for U.S. citizenship. Of course those families and parents would have to wait until the child turned 21.

'Birth Tourism': Silly Season in Politics

David Leopold of the American Immigration Lawyers Association said Graham and other Republicans are just playing politics.

"This is silly season in American politics and this is raised as a wedge issue," Leopold said.

"I think it's good to take a look at all of our constitutional amendments. But I'll tell you something: If you think it's a coincidence that this sudden discussion begins three months before an election, you'd be very, very mistaken," said Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders on "Top Line" last week.

Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter, whose parents were immigrants to the U.S., called U.S. citizenship by birth a fundamental right.

"The political pandering on the immigration issue has reached the hysterical level," Specter said in an interview with ABC News. "To try to direct the effort at the children born in this country is just preposterous... How can newborn children protect themselves if politicians want to gain political gain... I would be shocked if this idea would gain political traction, but I'm being shocked on a daily basis by the United States Senate."

History of Birthright and the 14th Amendment

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which was enacted after the Civil War to grant citizenship to descendants of slaves, reads: "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."

"The drafter of the 14th Amendment provision on citizenship did make a statement that it would not include foreigners or aliens," said George Washington constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley. "However, other senators made it clear that they believed that this provision guaranteed birthright citizenship."

The courts have repeatedly upheld the notion that people who are born in the U.S. are American citizens and if Congress passed a law changing that, it would likely be repealed, experts say.

The Supreme Court has only addressed the issue once, clarifying in 1898 that citizenship does apply to U.S.-born children of legal immigrants who have yet to become citizens.

"The legislative history may be a little mixed, but the language of the amendment seems to speak clearly in favor of birthright citizenship, regardless of what the intent may have been," Turley said.

The United States is one of the few remaining countries to grant citizenship to all children born on its soil. The United Kingdom, Ireland, India and Australia, among others, have since revised their birthright laws, no longer allowing every child born on their soil to get citizenship.