From Msnbc.com’s Carrie Dann and Tom Curry
The phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” may sound about as dry as the Mojave desert, but its meaning is reemerging as a major part of the immigration debate and a key part of a burning question: Should the children of illegal immigrants be given citizenship if they are born in the United States?
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., made headlines over the weekend when he suggested to CBS’s Face the Nation that the Senate should hold hearings on the constitutionality of the Fourteenth Amendment, which has been interpreted to ensure that anyone born in the United States is automatically a citizen of this country.
“The question is, if both parents are here illegally, should there be a reward for their illegal behavior?” he asked. Kyl proposed that constitutional experts should be consulted on the answer.
The Arizona lawmaker's comments came on the heels of a call by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for the elimination of so-called “birthright citizenship” in order to eliminate what he said is a major incentive for non-citizens to enter the country illegally.
“They come here to have babies. They come here to drop a child – it’s called drop and leave,” Graham said on FOX News. “To have a child in America, they cross the border, they go to the emergency room, have a child, and that child's automatically an American citizen. That shouldn't be the case. That attracts people here for all the wrong reasons.”
The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868 during the Reconstruction era, decrees that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside.”
The five words “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” were the basis of Supreme Court case in 1898 that guaranteed U.S. citizenship to children of foreign citizens born in the United States. Reversing that decision has been a popular idea among some conservatives for more than 20 years, although the nation as a whole appears to be split on the question.
A recent NBC/WSJ poll found that 49 percent of Americans believe that children of illegal immigrants should continue to be granted automatic citizenship, compared to 46 percent who think that the policy should be changed. Hispanics in the same poll supported a continued policy of birthright citizenship by a 4-1 margin.
(It’s worth noting that, as a practical matter, Kyl and the rest of the minority in the Senate cannot hold a hearing of the Judiciary Committee without the approval of the Democratic chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, who as the head of the committee is charged with scheduling all of the panel’s hearings. A House subcommittee held a hearing on the matter in 2005, when Republicans controlled the House.)
In 2007, Rep. Ron Paul, R- Texas, introduced a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would deny citizenship to individuals born in the United States to parents who are neither citizens nor persons who owe permanent allegiance to the United States. Rep Elton Gallegly, R- Calif. has twice introduced a bill to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to limit citizenship, merely by virtue of birth in the United States, to persons with citizen or legal resident mothers. Neither measure has made headway in the House.