Birthright Citizenship Stokes Immigration Debate Changing - or reinterpreting - the 14th Amendment’s treatment of birthright citizenship is one of the hottest topics in the national debate over immigration policy. Congressman Luis Gutierrez, Democrat of Illinois says he welcomes the conversation. And former Oklahoma Congressman Ernest Istook offers his take on the fundamental question of what makes an American an American.
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Birthright Citizenship Stokes Immigration Debate

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Birthright Citizenship Stokes Immigration Debate

Birthright Citizenship Stokes Immigration Debate

Birthright Citizenship Stokes Immigration Debate

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Changing - or reinterpreting - the 14th Amendment’s treatment of birthright citizenship is one of the hottest topics in the national debate over immigration policy. Congressman Luis Gutierrez, Democrat of Illinois says he welcomes the conversation. And former Oklahoma Congressman Ernest Istook offers his take on the fundamental question of what makes an American an American.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, new strategies for women of color to build and retain wealth. We'll tell you more about that in a few minutes.

But first, the debate over birthright citizenship. If you follow politics or cable news, then you are no doubt aware about the debate over whether to revoke birthright citizenship for those whose parents are in the U.S. without proper authorization.

Birthright citizenship, which was enshrined in the Constitution as part of the legal effort to end slavery in this country has not been seriously debated in decades. But now the issue has become a rallying point, particularly for Republican lawmakers and candidates who are frustrated over the country's immigration policy and enforcement.

But now one Democratic lawmaker, Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, is saying let's have that debate. He's with us now from Capitol Hill. Also with us, former Oklahoma congressman, Ernest Istook, who is currently a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and he joins us from the studios there. I welcome you both and thank you so much for joining us.

Representative LUIS GUTIERREZ (Democrat, Illinois): Great to be with you.

Mr. ERNEST ISTOOK (Fellow, Heritage Foundation): Pleasure to be with you.

MARTIN: Congressman Gutierrez, I'm going to start with you. You wrote a piece for The Huffington Post challenging those who want to reconsider the 14th Amendment. Can you read a little bit for us so we can hear your argument?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Sure. Imagine a United States where every birth initiates an investigation to determine the citizenship and immigration status of each parent. Let's have the hearing so we can take careful notes when the Republican witnesses explain how this government intrusion into maternal and child health burdening our health care system and discouraging pregnant women from seeking medical care while perhaps discouraging claims of paternity is justified to secure our border and protect the core liberties of America.

MARTIN: Obviously the piece goes on from there. We'll have a link to it on our site so people can read the whole piece for itself. But I wasn't really sure if you're being tongue-in-cheek or do you really think it is time to actually have that debate so people can decide if they want to revisit this issue or not.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Actually, both. If you actually take me up on it, then I think America will see just how false this argument is and how unbelievably un-American and just goes against the core, I don't know, traditions and principles of the America I was born in. An America of great immigrant tradition.

And I always try to figure out how my pro-life, pro-family Republican friends are now this pro-neonatal detention and deportation. It's almost like it wasn't enough that they want to drive the people that weren't born here out of the country, now they want to drive even the ones that were.

MARTIN: Mr. Istook, let's bring you into the conversation. Is this an appropriate time to revisit the 14th Amendment?

Mr. ISTOOK: Well, I think the congressman and I both agree that it is a legitimate debate. When you mention, for example, checking into parentage. Right now, our public health system already collects information about birth parents. That's how Texas became aware that last year there were 60,000 children born in the Lone Star state to parents who are illegal immigrants to the United States.

Now, 60,000 a year in Texas over 10 years, that's going to be approximately 600,000. And when you realize it's not just Texas, it's California, it's New Mexico, it's Arizona, it's non-border states. And you realize that, yes, this is a significant issue. There are significant costs, of course, since most of these births happen at taxpayer expense. There's education cost and so forth. It's absolutely a legitimate debate.

I'm going to disagree with something you said in the introduction saying that birthright citizenship is enshrined in the Constitution. That's not what it says. The text of the 14th Amendment states 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 Supreme Court took up the language in 1898 in the ruling of Wong Kim Ark, United States versus Wong Kim Ark. His parents were legal residents, but citizens of China. Then the Supreme Court said in that circumstance, yes, Wong Kim Ark indeed was a native-born American citizen. But they have not passed judgment on the circumstance where the parents are not in the country legally. That's the crux of the legal issues. The policy issue obviously (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Can I just clarify your point here?

Mr. ISTOOK: Yeah.

MARTIN: Is your point that birthright citizenship has been misinterpreted for the last 100 years or so? You're saying that the courts have misinterpreted the birthright citizenship?

Mr. ISTOOK: I think many people it's common for people to have different interpretations when the Supreme Court has not given a clear cut ruling on a certain fact circumstance.

MARTIN: Mr. Gutierrez, what about Mr. Istook's point? His point is that this is a perfectly legitimate issue to debate and that there already is a level of information collected from people at birth. What's your answer to that?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Let me see. Last time I checked, it was two-thirds of the House, two-thirds of the Senate and three-fourths of the state have to ratify an amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Do we really think within the context of comprehensive immigration and dealing with our immigration debate something that might take a decade or more?

If the issue is now, why bring it up? It's almost as though the Republicans live in this fantasy land where there's this magic wand. If we eliminate the 14th Amendment, they'll just disappear. There'll be 60,000 fewer births next year in the state of Texas.

Look, no one's disappearing. No one's going to leave. This should be put in the context of a broader debate and a broader discussion. And I say that other countries, for example, France, that have generations born on their soil, but were never fully integrated as citizens have found that to be a disastrous combination.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez and former Congressman Ernest Istook from Oklahoma. He's now at the Heritage Foundation. And we're talking about the 14th Amendment and the whole question of birthright citizenship. Should there be hearings to debate whether birthright citizenship should apply to persons who are in this country without proper authorization.

So, Mr. Istook, Mr. Gutierrez made a couple of points that I hope you would respond to. One, his argument is this takes too long and so this is not revisiting the Constitution is not an appropriate way to address immigration policy.

Mr. ISTOOK: But that's not what I talked about.

MARTIN: I understand. But, number two, the other question he argued is that this creates a lack of division that this undermines social cohesion and that other countries who don't offer birthright citizenship find that people don't assimilate over generations. So if you would address those points along with whatever...

Mr. ISTOOK: I'm going to address the things that he said. First of all, he claimed that I'm advocating the elimination of the 14th Amendment, which is totally false. I don't know anybody that is advocating the elimination or repeal of the 14th Amendment. What I stated is that the existing 14th Amendment seems to have a language that allows Congress to legislate which is short of a constitutional amendment that he's talking about.

Secondly, I think the arguments that he's making sound to me like the open border philosophy saying, look, all sorts of people want to come to America. I agree. I'm glad people want to come to America. I want them to come to America. But I want them to come to America legally. Most Americans are going to strenuously disagree with the notion that we should have open borders.

And especially right now when we have so many millions of Americans unemployed and they find they had to compete for jobs with people who are not even in the country legally. There's a lot of concern. There are reasons why a majority of Americans tell pollsters that they support the law that was adopted in Arizona, for example.

MARTIN: Mr. Istook, do I understand that your position here that you don't think this would require a constitutional process to (unintelligible)? You don't think...

Mr. ISTOOK: I think this can be done without a constitutional amendment because of the exclusionary language in the 14th Amendment that limits the impact and the degree of birthright citizenship, yes.

MARTIN: Okay. I'm going to get a final thought from you, but Mr. Gutierrez, can I ask you to address that particular narrow point. And then, finally, ask you what do you think should happen next?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Look, here's what we got. We got political gains instead of seriously legislating comprehensive immigration reform or changing our immigration system. The bill that I introduced, bipartisan, which calls for making sure that everything at that border is secure. But I also understand that there are four million American citizen children who, because the Constitution hasn't been changed, are citizens of the United States.

And since I know my colleagues would never retroactively apply a standard or a law, what are we going to do about them and their parents as they grow up in America? Look, there are 12 million undocumented workers, I say, register them with the federal government. I say take their fingerprints and do a background check. Have them pay a fine. Put them at the end of the line. Make sure that they work and they learn English and follow the law so they can raise the best American citizen children. That's the American tradition of integrating people into this country.

MARTIN: Mr. Gutierrez, can I just clarify one point with you before we let you go? And I appreciate you've been very generous with your time, particularly in a very hectic schedule on the floor today. Do you feel that hearings should proceed or not on this question? I take it, your point, that you think it's a red herring, but do you think it should proceed to vet these issues or not?

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Here's what I want to do. I want to have a hearing. And if this is part of a hearing to end illegal immigration as we know it, that's what I want to do. That's what I propose to do as a Democrat, to have the best border security in the world, but understanding that 40 percent of the undocumented in this country come through airports and other legal points of entry and I want to make sure that those are secure too for America because I don't want to drive and use this as a wedge issue in America between Latinos and the rest of this country.

Immigrants in this country come from Poland and the Ukraine and from Ireland and the Philippines and from so many beautiful countries to enrich this great nation of ours. Let's have a debate about how it is we make an immigration system that is family centered. And make sure it preserves the integrity of those families.

MARTIN: Okay. Mr. Gutierrez, we have to leave it there for now.

Rep. GUTIERREZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: Mr. Istook, I gave Mr. Gutierrez the first word, I think it's appropriate to give you the last word. If we could have a final thought from you.

Mr. ISTOOK: Well, I appreciate that. And, you know, I appreciate the passion with which Congressman Gutierrez approaches these things. But it doesn't change the fact that America succeeds not only because we've provided an opportunity for people to come from all over the world. My grandparents were immigrants from Hungary. They came through Ellis Island. But we've also said as part of coming here, you become a part of the system of laws. You become a part of a nation that has that respect for the law and you have an opportunity to participate in them.

And Congressman Gutierrez admitted himself, I think the figure he used was four million people who have been born in the United States of America to people without documents, to people who are illegal immigrants. That points out the magnitude of the challenge of the extra expense when most of those have had their medical expenses paid for by the taxpayers. Their education paid for by the taxpayers.

And I'm glad that he wants to enforce the law against employers who hire illegal immigrants. But I think it should also be enforced against the illegal immigrants themselves. It ought to be both ways.

MARTIN: All right. That is former Oklahoma Congressman Ernest Istook. He joined us from the studios at the Heritage Foundation, where he is now a fellow. Congressman Luis Gutierrez who is a Democrat from Illinois spoke with us from the radio studios on Capitol Hill, and I thank you both so much for speaking to us today.

Mr. ISTOOK: Thanks again.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, we dug a little deeper into the statement by former Congressman Istook. He said that 60,000 children were born to illegal immigrants in Texas last year. We contacted the Health and Human Services Commission in Texas and its research shows that 63,466 children were born to non-citizens in that state last year. That number would include those in the country legally, as well as those who are undocumented.

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