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'Anchor babies' weigh down Arkansas?


- PROVIDING CARE: Advanced practicing nurse Julie Thibodaux with a young Hispanic patient.
  • PROVIDING CARE: Advanced practicing nurse Julie Thibodaux with a young Hispanic patient.

We are being overtaken by illegal babies, or so certain anti-immigration advocates claim — babies born to undocumented mothers seeking a stake in the United States, "anchoring" them to our prosperous and free nation.

According to the 14th Amendment, any child born in the U.S. does receive automatic U.S. citizenship, plus all the American perks: an identity card, access to Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, the ability to get a driver's license, a public education, a job with benefits, a wedding certificate.

But a federal bill crawling its way through Congress would end automatic naturalization for infants born to parents who are not legal U.S. citizens. Four million children were born to undocumented parents in 2008, according to an estimate by the Pew Hispanic Center, a top immigration demographer.

The measure, titled the "Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011," seeks to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to clarify classes of individuals born in the U.S. who automatically become citizens of the United States at birth.

The bill was introduced in the U.S. House in early January by Steve King, an Iowa Republican. Referred to the House Judiciary committee, then on to the Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement in late January, the bill now has 68 cosponsors and counting, including Arkansas Reps. Rick Crawford, Tim Griffin and Steve Womack. Democrat Mike Ross is not a sponsor. Griffin reportedly said birthright citizenship rewards illegal behavior. Steve Womack is on the record referring to illegal immigration as a "festering" problem.

As a resident of Rogers, Womack's witnessed first-hand a surge of immigrants in his district over the past 25 years. Eleven million unauthorized immigrants resided in the U.S. as of October 2010. And according to new census figures, the Hispanic population in Arkansas has doubled since 2000 — to 186,000, 6.4 percent of the state's population. As many as 60,000 may be undocumented.

Undocumented children, brought and raised here by undocumented parents, live in the twilight zone. They may attend public school, even attend a public university in Arkansas (although they have to pay out-of-state tuition) but they can't legally drive or work. For the rest of their lives, they are forced to live underground.

The federal "DREAM Act," if passed, could quell some of those challenges, but it was crushed by an exiting Congress late last year.

We may never know how many undocumented children or adults live in Arkansas. But many are attracted to the state's immigrant epicenter — Springdale. And many pregnant alien mothers end up at Community Health Clinic, a federally qualified health center, which provides critical prenatal care for low-income families.

Kathy Grisham is the clinic's long-time executive director. She says the birthright citizenship law as it stands saves taxpayers a tremendous amount of money.

"Undocumented women can qualify for Medicaid because the services go to the unborn child, under a state approved S-Chip program," she said.

"When a baby's born as a U.S. citizen, it's a perfect way to care for her and keep her from being a 'million dollar baby,' " she said. "For every dollar invested in prenatal care you save at least $7 dollars in after-birth care. It's our community and our hospitals that absorb that cost, with no reimbursement for that care."

In 2010, Community Clinic, which operates three medical sites in Northwest Arkansas, had 75,000 patient visits from low-income residents with no insurance, up from 18,000 in 2005. Last year it provided prenatal care to 1,481 patients over nearly 5,400 visits. Forty-four percent were Hispanic, 11 percent Marshallese. The clinic doesn't track citizenship status, Grisham said.

Community Clinic refers expectant mothers to the nearest hospital, primarily Northwest Health System and its partner facility Willow Creek Women's Hospital. In 2005, it recorded 399 Hispanic newborns. By 2010, that number increased to 692.

Washington Regional Medical Center provides birthing facilities to immigrant mothers. In 2005, 354 Hispanic babies were born there. But 10 years later, only 86 were recorded. Hospital officials are unable to interpret the significant decrease. Neither hospital tracks documentation status.

Many alien moms may simply end up in emergency rooms. Others may be assisted by midwives. And hospitals that take charity cases often write off the cost.

Critics who seek to repeal birthright citizenship cite that burden to both hospitals and taxpayers. Plus, giving birth to a U.S. citizen does provide parents a path to naturalization. They can petition for legal residency when their child reaches 21 years of age.

Referring to such children as "anchor babies" upsets Community Clinic chief Kathy Grisham.

"What we see at the Community Clinic are people who've come to this country for the same reasons my ancestors did — to have a better opportunity."

The Pew Hispanic Center corroborates this. It found that only 9 percent of undocumented women who've given birth have recently crossed into the U.S. Sixty percent arrived before 2004, and 30 percent between 2004 and 2007.

Tara Manthey is spokesperson for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families in Little Rock. She says denying babies an American birthright poses a certain danger.

"We are concerned that if a fundamental right like having citizenship at birth is taken away, you would have a very large population of children who are children without a nation," she said. "They would live on the outside margins of society, would be subject to exploitation, or deportation to a country they've never known, not get an education, or access to preventive services, possibly becoming ill, and not being able to help our economy and country move ahead when they are adults."

Under an amended birthright citizenship law, if at least one parent is legal, the infant will be as well. Nationwide, the number of children born to at least one unauthorized-immigrant parent in 2009 was 350,000 — 8 percent of all U.S. newborns.

It's been several months since the birthright citizenship bill has been considered, what with more pressing congressional issues — the federal budget, deficit reductions, unrest in the Middle East.

But once the immigration debate re-surfaces, Americans will be given an opportunity to study up on birthright citizenship as stated in the 14th amendment: "All persons born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States."

That middle clause — "Subject to the jurisdiction thereof" — has divided both politicians and constitutional scholars.

The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868 to protect the civil liberties of freed slaves. Thirty years later the U.S. Supreme Court considered the provision and found it indeed provides citizenship to a child born to immigrant parents.

But now, lawmakers in a dozen states seek to end birthright citizenship.

On March 17, Arizona lawmakers, the first to try, voted against two birthright-citizenship bills. According to the Arizona Republic, state Democrats stood in opposition with Republicans being divided.

If enacted, Arizona-born babies would be naturalized as citizens of the state and U.S. only if at least one of their parents were either a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent U.S. resident.

But even if a bill passes, any repeal will likely end up back in the U.S. Supreme Court.

This article is drawn from a piece the writer first reported on KUAF-FM.

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