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Constitution 101: Babies born in U.S. are citizens

By Rep. Mike Honda, Special to CNN
  • 14th amendment says, in part, "all persons born ... in the United States ... are citizens"
  • Mike Honda: Some Republicans want to deny citizenship to babies born to "illegal" parents
  • Reinterpreting 14th Amendment would be a costly, red-tape nightmare, he writes
  • Partisanship, not 14th Amendment, stalls immigration reform, Honda says

Editor's note: Rep. Michael Honda has represented the 15th Congressional District of California for 10 years and is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, co-chair of the Democratic Caucus' New Media Working Group and House Democratic Senior Whip.

(CNN) -- The serious and necessary debate on comprehensive immigration reform has been clouded by a debate over birthright citizenship.

At the heart of the discussion is the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which declares "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."

Some Republican legislators -- Sens. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky; David Vitter, R-Louisiana, and Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa -- want to redefine how we understand the 14th Amendment. The legislative solution that they and other Republicans propose is to interpret the amendment to limit citizenship to children born with at least one parent who is a legal citizen, by birth or naturalized; a lawful resident, or an active member of the Armed Forces.

Ironically, the 14th Amendment stands as one of the greatest legacies of the Republican Party, adopted in the aftermath of the Civil War. The 14th Amendment was part of a set that ended slavery, guaranteed equal protection, and provided all Americans with the right to vote.

Ironically, the 14th Amendment stands as one of the greatest legacies of the Republican Party.
--Mike Honda
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Denying citizenship to persons born in the United States who do not meet this new Republican interpretation could produce tens of thousands of people with undeterminated nationality each year and lead to a bureaucratic nightmare. Parents would scramble to prove their children's status, enforcement agencies could patrol maternity wards, and lawyers would angle to argue the cases of thousands of newborns. These implications are hardly in line with the Republican ideology of having a limited and smaller government.

Beyond the political ramifications, altering America's approach to birthright citizenship would not make economic sense, either. Any deportation plan of America's undocumented immigrants would cost our country's gross domestic product $2.6 trillion over the next 10 years, according to a study by UCLA professor Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda. Conversely, if we embrace comprehensive immigration reform, we add $1.5 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product over the next 10 years.

Opposite view: Close the birthright citizenship loophole

Can the 14th Amendment defend itself?

We cannot afford, at the federal level, the continued noncitizenship of 12 million undocumented immigrants, nor can we afford piecemeal approaches state-by-state. State-based attempts to ferret out their own fixes are not only unconstitutional but fiscally unsound. Thankfully, Arizona's fix, which allowed state law enforcement officials to stop, question, detain and report individuals based on suspicion of undocumented status, failed to gain traction nationally.

If Republicans think that denying birthright citizenship will drive immigrants away from the United States, they are mistaken. It will only serve to drive them away from the Republican Party.

There is no doubt that our immigration system is broken, but it's not our Constitution or the 14th Amendment that is to blame, it is our inability to put aside partisan politics to develop a comprehensive and humane solution. And if anything needs amending, it is partisan politics.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rep. Mike Honda.