WASHINGTON, August 3, 2010— -- What does it mean to be born in the U.S.A.? For more than a century, the answer has included automatic citizenship, complete with its array of rights and privileges.
But now at least one prominent Republican lawmaker wants to change the 14th Amendment to the Constitution which grants American citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil.
"Birthright citizenship I think is a mistake," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Fox News last week. "We should change our Constitution and say if you come here illegally and you have a child, that child's automatically not a citizen."
Graham has voiced concern over the burgeoning size of America's illegal immigrant population, estimated at 10.8 million and whose offspring in the U.S. -- so-called "anchor babies" -- would be able to sponsor their parents for legal residency.
He also worries about mothers who come to the U.S. from foreign countries for the sole purpose of obtaining citizenship for their children.
"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," Graham said. "That shouldn't be the case. That attracts people here for all the wrong reasons."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other leading Republicans, including Arizona Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, today indicated an openness to exploring the 14th Amendment issue raised by Sen. Graham.
"It's a rather unseemly business and I think we ought to have some hearings about it," McConnell told reporters.
"Congressional hearings are always warranted when members of Congress raise the issue of amending our Constitution," said McCain in a statement. "I believe that the Constitution is a strong, complete and carefully crafted document that has successfully governed our nation for centuries and any proposal to amend the Constitution should receive extensive and thoughtful consideration."
But some lawmakers are calling the push to revise the 14th Amendment nothing but a political stunt.
"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" Tuesday.
Pennsylvannia 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."
An estimated 4 million citizen children born to illegal immigrant parents lived in the U.S. as of 2008, up about 1.3 million from 2003, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Births to Immigrant Mothers on the Rise
How many children are being born to illegal immigrants in the U.S. each year?
Federal and state governments do not specifically track the annual number of U.S. births by illegal immigrants. But according to the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, one out of every 10 births in the U.S. is to an illegal immigrant.
The number of U.S. births by non-resident mothers -- women who are in the U.S. temporarily -- has also been on the rise: up 53 percent between 2000 and 2006, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Total births rose 5 percent in the same period.
It's unclear how many of the 7,600 births to non-resident mothers in 2006, the most recent data, were by women who traveled to the U.S. with the sole purpose of obtaining citizenship for their child. The count includes international travelers passing through and foreign students studying at U.S. universities.
The State Department and Department of Homeland Security have no specific regulations banning pregnant foreigners from entering the United States. But officials say they can and do turn away pregnant women with obvious designs on coming to the United States to take advantage of free medical care.
"When determining if an individual will be allowed to enter the U.S., Customs and Border Protection officers take into consideration the date the child is due for delivery and the length of time the individual intends to stay in the U.S.," a Department of Homeland Security spokesman said.
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."
"I find it so interesting that strict constitutionalists, whether it's Kyl, McCain, Brewer, the Tea Party, find that the Constitution can be malleable if it fits their ads," charged Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona. "You're either for the Constitution that you swore to uphold or you`re not. It's politics. It's useful, destructive politics that they're using. And they have to continue to use it until the midterms."
"I don't think the founders understood when they did the 14th amendment that they would create a circumstance where people could fly into America, all over the world and have a child and that child would have dual citizenship, fly back to their home countries," said Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions. "It has been clearly abused."
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 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.
ABC News' Avery Miller contributed to this report.
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