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Anchors away

"Anchors away" Continued...

Issue: "Broken beyond repair?," Sept. 25, 2010

Eileen Walker, a labor and delivery nurse at Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, Ariz., agrees with Camarota's assessment and says in her work she sees illegal immigrants abusing emergency treatment laws and the AHCCCS program. "AHCCCS won't cover an illegal patient's doctor's visit, but the hospital is different. Anyone who walks into OB Triage claiming a health problem, we have to provide care. If they come in and say they're having headaches or have a cold or flu symptoms, we have to provide care." She says pregnant noncitizens understand that they can use emergency treatment as regular maternity care. "They know the right things to say and they know how to manipulate the system. They'll say, 'I'm not feeling my baby move,' because it is a guaranteed way to get the doctor to order an ultrasound. So they can get every benefit-top-of-the-line sonograms, epidurals, all the care a patient with insurance or who is paying out of pocket has-for free."

Some illegal immigrants fail to complete the paperwork that allows the hospital to get reimbursed by the state for its services, says Walker. "They'll get the care they came for and then just disappear, and we'll look around and say, 'Where did they go?' They leave and we find the AHCCCS application in the room," says Walker. "We eat those costs." As a result, she says, employees of Thunderbird have seen a drastic reduction in their own benefits as the hospital tries to cut expenses without resorting to layoffs.

Experience like Walker's and research like Camarota's are what's driving legislators who say it is time for the United States to reconsider its practice of granting citizenship to everyone born here. Among those who support hearings on the issue are Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as well as House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio. Graham is particularly vehement, calling birthright citizenship "a mistake" on Fox News in July and announcing possible plans to introduce a constitutional amendment to reverse it.

The concept of citizenship by birthright has its roots in past injustices. When the Supreme Court ruled in the 1857 Dred Scott case that blacks were not citizens, Congress responded by passing a statute that conferred citizenship by birth. After the Civil War, citizenship for freed slaves received constitutional grounding in 1868 with the 14th Amendment. It 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 frontline of the objection against anchor babies is that clause, "subject to the jurisdiction thereof." Those who believe that the children of illegal immigrants shouldn't be considered citizens argue that the 14th Amendment was never intended to apply to them because their parents are not U.S. citizens nor here with U.S. authorization, and therefore are not subject to its jurisdiction.

Recent polls show Americans split about 50-50 on whether birthright citizenship should be repealed-though in border states like Arizona support for the idea is stronger, with two-thirds favoring it. But even someone like Camarota-whose career is researching illegal immigration and publicizing the problems it creates-is hesitant to endorse such a constitutional change.

On the one hand, he says he agrees with Republican leaders who point out that the United States is one of the only industrialized democracies to give citizenship to everyone born within its borders. And he understands the frustration of those who feel that birthright citizenship makes it extremely difficult to solve the problems of illegal immigration, as groups opposed to enforcement can claim that it divides families. "Politically, it creates a much different environment in which to have the debate. One of the chief arguments for granting amnesty to unauthorized residents is that they have all these citizen children and we shouldn't do harm to citizen children," says Camarota. "The advocacy groups make that argument all the time and you get [President] Obama saying that we're tearing babies from their mothers' breasts by trying to enforce the law. Of course the child can always go with the parents so we're not really dividing families, but it allows that narrative to be constructed. So it matters enormously in the immigration debate and it greatly complicates our efforts."

Camarota says that the odds against changing the law are steep. "It'll be a tough, nasty political battle that will focus on children. If you're pro-enforcement, that's not what you want," he says. Even if Congress passed a law, it would by no means signal the end of the fight: "You'd still have an ambiguous outcome because it would have to wind its way through the courts for years. Then if you'd wanted to change it you'd have to get a constitutional amendment. To my mind it's just not where we should put our political efforts."

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