MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The immigration debate sparked by Arizona's controversial new law has revived calls to reconsider the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment. The amendment grants automatic citizenship to just about any child born in the U.S. Some say it presents an irresistible lure for illegal immigrants and needs to be revised.
NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN: The 14th Amendment was ratified more than 140 years ago. But it's getting a lot of play these days on the cable news shows.
(Soundbite of TV show)
Unidentified Man #1: Well, I mean wait, wait. You asked me why I want to change it. Let me tell you why.
Unidentified Man #2: The 14th Amendment is in the Constitution.
Unidentified Man #1: Let me tell you why.
Unidentified Man #2: The 14th Amendment can't be unconstitutional. It is the Constitution.
Unidentified Man #1: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.
Unidentified Man #2: If in fact it only covers...
Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, okay, that's a great spin.
Mr. ANDERSON COOPER (host): Wait, one at a time.
KAHN: That was CNN's Anderson Cooper trying to moderate opposing viewpoints over whether it's time to change the citizenship clause. The furor was touched off by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who said he thinks giving automatic citizenship to children of non-residents is a mistake.
Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): 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 an emergency room, have a child and that child is automatically an American citizen. That shouldn't be the case. That attracts people here for all the wrong reasons.
KAHN: Graham has been joined by other leading Republicans, including Senators John McCain and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in calling for Senate hearings on whether changes to the 14th Amendment are needed. They say not only are tourists taking advantage of the automatic citizenship clause, but so are illegal immigrants who use their citizen children to petition for legal residency. Many refer to these children of illegal immigrants as anchor babies.
Ms. FATIMA RENTERIA: I don't even know how to reply to that without being too angry.
KAHN: Fatima�Renteria says she's never heard the term anchor baby before. Her parents brought her here illegally when she was four months old. She's now 22 and just had a baby of her own, an automatic U.S. citizen.
Ms. RENTERIA: I didn't decide to just come here to have a baby here. I've been here my whole life, grew up, I got married and decided to have a baby.
KAHN: I caught up with Renteria when she was waiting in the admissions office of a Southern California community college. She was in line to see a counselor.
(Soundbite of admissions office)
Unidentified Woman: Next in line.
KAHN: Renteria wants to be a high school math teacher. She says illegal immigrants like herself don't come to the United States to have babies, they come to have a better life. She's upset that lawmakers would try and take away her son's citizenship rights.
Ms. RENTERIA: He has rights. He was born here. He has rights. They can't just do that.
KAHN: Immigrant advocates say Republicans are creating a controversy to keep the issue of illegal immigration in the news through midterm elections in November.
Elizabeth Wydra of the Constitutional Accountability Center says repealing the citizenship clause is too radical of a move and would mark the first time the Constitution would be amended to make it less egalitarian.
Ms. ELIZABETH WYDRA (Constitutional Accountability Center): While everyone recognizes that there are problems with our immigration system in this country, my perspective is: Let's try to fix this through legislation and not tinker with the genius of our constitutional design.
KAHN: The 14th Amendment was ratified after the Civil War to ensure that children of freed slaves would be granted citizenship. Scholars say it is on solid legal ground. The Supreme Court upheld the amendment when it ruled in favor of a man born in the U.S. to Chinese immigrants and granted him citizenship back in 1892.
But Brian Bilbray, a Republican congressman from San Diego, says it's been more than a century since the Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue and it's long overdue. Bilbray has been fighting since the 1990s to change the 14th Amendment citizenship clause. He says in these tough economic times, the law must be reviewed.
Representative BRIAN BILBRAY (Republican, California): When you say there's not enough to go around for those who are here legally or those playing by the rules, you sort of say: Why do we continue to have an enticement to encourage people to break the law?
KAHN: Whether a new legal challenge is mounted or attempts to amend the Constitution are launched, either won't come about anytime soon, if at all.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.