WASHINGTON - A group of Republican state legislators came to Washington on Wednesday to unveil a blueprint for state immigration laws that might force a Supreme Court review of the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to any child born on U.S. soil, regardless of the parents' legal status.
The group is pushing legislation that would take two approaches: It would create two tiers of birth certificates, one of which states would only produce for babies born to U.S. citizens and legal residents; and it would attempt to skirt laws stipulating that the federal government defines U.S. citizenship by adding a second level of "state" citizenship.
In a separate effort, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who will be chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, said he would introduce a bill to eliminate citizenship for children when both parents were illegal immigrants.
Experts say such laws would be challenged as unconstitutional. The legislators' group says it welcomes such opposition: It sees court fights as the best vehicle to force the Supreme Court to consider a reinterpretation of the 14th Amendment.
It's the latest salvo by those who seek to restrict who receives the right of citizenship. Denying citizenship to a specific group of children born in the country would create a "modern-day caste system," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
About 340,000 children were born to illegal immigrants in 2008, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center. Thousands of children born to tourists and foreign students also could be denied citizenship if the 14th Amendment were reinterpreted.
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The 14th Amendment, part of a package of Reconstruction laws passed after the Civil War, guaranteed citizenship to freed slaves. Courts have upheld it as protection for citizenship rights of American-born Chinese children, Native American children and children born to Japanese-American families when their citizenship was challenged during World War II.
It is "extremely doubtful" that the Supreme Court would hear such a case, said Walter Dellinger, a Duke University law professor and former solicitor general under President Clinton. "It is one of the great civil-rights achievements of the United States," he said. "This issue is raised in every instance in a racial context. It is always a divisive issue."
Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican who appeared at a Wednesday news conference, said state-crafted laws would help slow an "illegal alien invasion." He said he expected about 20 states to introduce legislation soon, among them Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Virginia.
When Danny Verdin, majority whip for the South Carolina Senate, took the podium at the news conference to explain his intention to introduce the proposed laws in his state, he raised the upcoming April commemoration of Confederate troops firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., at the start of the Civil War.
"South Carolina may have been out front leading 150 years ago at Fort Sumter; we are happy to work collaboratively on this to cure a malady," said Verdin, a Republican.
Henderson called such rhetoric an "assault on the integrity of the Constitution. This issue was resolved over 100 years ago."