Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to CNN.com.
San Diego, California (CNN) -- And then they came for the children.
Just when you thought Arizona lawmakers couldn't stoop any lower, these cowardly and shameful politicians grab a shovel and put in a basement.
This fall, the Arizona legislature is expected to debate a bill that would deny birth certificates to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants -- the "anchor babies" that some Republicans have been trying to marginalize for years.
The lawmakers are cowards because, first, they go after illegal immigrants who don't vote, lobby or contribute to political campaigns. And now they're going after children who don't vote, lobby or contribute to political campaigns.
Whom are they not going after? Employers of illegal immigrants. You know why? Because they vote, lobby and contribute to political campaigns.
By the way, the term "anchor babies," which refers to the tots that supposedly increase the chances that mommy and daddy can stay in the United States even if mommy and daddy are in the country illegally, isn't just offensive and crude. It's also misleading.
The fact that Elvira Arellano, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who was famously holed up in a Chicago, Illinois, church, had a U.S.-born son didn't stop federal officials from deporting her in 2007. Some anchor.
The real anchor is a job, the kind eagerly provided by U.S. employers who thumb their noses at federal law prohibiting the hiring of illegal immigrants.
In fact, right-wingers acknowledge as much when they argue that if we dry up the jobs, illegal immigrants will self-deport.
What about their kids, some of which were born in the United States? Why not stay for them? Simple: Employment takes precedence. Thus, according to conservatives' own arguments, there aren't anchor babies -- only anchor jobs.
Also, you can bet that some of the same people who oppose citizenship for the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants also oppose the idea of granting a pathway to earned legalization -- what they call "amnesty" -- to illegal immigrants. Why?
Because, they say, you can't willy-nilly convert those who are illegal to legal. Then how can those folks be so cavalier about making that conversion in the opposite direction by changing legal to illegal?
Lastly, one of the things you hear from amnesty opponents is that illegal immigrants should certainly not be given U.S. citizenship. It's just too valuable, they say. Agreed. But if it's so valuable, then why are some on the right so quick to strip it away from the children of illegal immigrants? Don't U.S. citizens deserve more respect than that? Apparently not.
In the late 1990s, the member of Congress leading the crusade against "birthright citizenship" was Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-California.
The San Diego-area congressman proposed a bill to limit the privilege to the children of U.S. citizens. The legislation didn't go anywhere. It couldn't even get a hearing from some of Bilbray's fellow Republicans, who cringed at the idea of visiting the sins of the parents onto the children.
The same was true for another failed attempt by Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Georgia, who, in 2005, proposed a bill that explicitly denied citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. The bill didn't go anywhere either, in part because not enough Republicans would even agree to give it a hearing.
That same year, I discussed the idea with Rep. James Sensenbrenner, who was then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the author of a sweeping piece of legislation called "The Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Immigration Control Act of 2005." Among other things, the bill would have made unauthorized presence in the United States a felony. Yet even Sensenbrenner, not exactly a softhearted liberal, wouldn't touch the idea of denying citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants. When fellow Republicans tried to insert such language into his bill, he was careful to keep it out.
There was a time when Republicans knew better than to handle radioactive material. My, how times have changed.
And now all the opponents of birthright citizenship have to do is change the Constitution. The 14th Amendment makes clear that anyone born in the United States, with the possible exception of the children of foreign diplomats, is a U.S. citizen.
"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. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
Grasping at straws, restrictionists and nativists claim that illegal immigrants aren't "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States.
So what? My concern isn't that critics don't know how to read the law. It's that they don't know how to read -- period.
Jurisdiction applies not to the parents, but to the children. As U.S. citizens, they're subject to U.S. laws, but they also enjoy the protection of the U.S. Constitution. The closed border / closed mind crowd may not like it, but that's the way it is.
I'm not surprised that this escapes the state of Arizona.
Given all that's happened in recent weeks in its jihad against not illegal immigrants but Hispanics in general, the Grand Canyon State seems to have more than its share of people who slept through high school civics, and they're being advised by lawyers who were obviously absent the day they taught "law" in law school. That's not a good look.
The U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants are legally entitled to U.S. citizenship. What part of "legal" don't the critics understand?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.