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'Drop and leave?' Not so fast

The debate over the citizenship rights of children of illegal immigrants doesn’t seem to be going away.

In the latest development, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales – who is of Mexican descent – spoke out against GOP-backed proposals to amend the Fourteenth Amendment to prevent automatic citizenship for all children born in the United States regardless of their parents’ immigration status.

“Because most undocumented workers come here to provide for themselves and their families, a constitutional amendment will not solve our immigration crisis,” he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “People will certainly continue to cross our borders to find a better life, irrespective of the possibilities of U.S. citizenship.”

Some have disagreed with Gonzales’s assessment. Cable news channels and the blogoshere have been abuzz in recent weeks with chatter and debate about a phenomenon called “drop and leave.”

The expression is blunt political short-hand for what some claim is a common occurrence: immigrants deliberately traveling to the United States for the purpose giving birth on U.S. soil to a child, and then returning home.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants "birthright citizenship" to any individual born in the United States. Critics of "drop and leave," including some members of Congress, claim illegal immigrants are abusing that provided right, and have been calling a new amendment of the Constitution to eliminate that very provision.

“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,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on FOX News last month. “That shouldn't be the case. That attracts people here for all the wrong reasons.”

Critics call such children "anchor babies," because as citizens they can “anchor” their families in the U.S.

Lawmakers and pundits who favor possible changes to the Fourteenth Amendment, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have pointed to recent news reports about “birth tourism” -- describing businesses that provide travel packages to expectant mothers wanting to deliver their children in the United States.

A recent Washington Post report described how one Taiwanese couple has helped over 500 Chinese mothers give birth to citizen babies in America over the five years they have been in business. A June 2010 Times of London story detailed a package offered by one hotel in New York City (the Marmara Manhattan hotel, part of a Turkish hospitality chain). The paper reported that the package offered a two-month stay, including medical fees for mothers-to-be, for a total of about £28,000 ($43,440). A sales official for the hotel said that no such package exists at this time, but would not comment on whether or not recent press reports about the program were accurate. A Marmara public relations spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

Does "drop-and-leave" happen? Do non-residents of the United States come to American hospitals specifically to have babies who automatically become American citizens? And is it common?

Although it does happen -- there have been some documented cases -- there's no hard evidence that non-citizens are motivated to have children here simply because of the incentive of citizenship for a member of their family.

According to a birth report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a total of 7,775 U.S. births in 2007 were to parents who did not reside in the United States. That’s less than two tenths of one percent of all births nationwide.

But that figure only includes births to parents who are temporary visitors to the U.S. It does not include the number of births to parents who are already living the United States illegally. It's difficult to count or calculate that number, although a 2009 study by the Pew Hispanic Center estimated there are about four million American-born children of illegal immigrants living in the country today.

Graham and other Republicans are correct in saying that estimates of the number of citizen children of illegal immigrants is on the rise. The estimated number of U.S. citizen children with at least one undocumented parent rose from 2.7 million in 2003 to 4 million in 2008, according to Pew.

But the claim that automatic citizenship “attracts” illegal parents to have children on U.S. soil lacks such definitive data.

Jeffrey Passel, a demographer who co-authored the Pew Hispanic Center study, says that there is not conclusive evidence that having American-born children is a major motivator for undocumented immigrants who make their way into the United States.

“If having a baby was the incentive, we’d see more females” migrating across the border to the United States, he said. (The flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico is more than 60 percent male.)

Some who support changing the Fourteenth Amendment argue that undocumented immigrants view having a U.S.-citizen “anchor baby” as a way to discourage federal authorities from deporting them if they are apprehended.

But Anna O. Law, a political science professor at DePaul University, says that courts are not sympathetic. She points out that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a strict standard of evidence for those wishing to defer deportation. They must demonstrate “exceptional and unusual hardship.”

“Exceptional and unusual hardship’ does not include the fact of having a U.S. citizen child,” she said. “Absolutely not.”

Whether or not many illegal parents are having children on U.S. soil as a strategy to stay in the U.S., one statistic shows the U.S. continues to deport significant numbers of illegal parents who have had children here.

According to a 2009 Department of Homeland Security report, U.S. immigration officials deported more than 100,000 non-U.S. citizens between 1998 and 2007 despite their having at least one child with U.S. citizenship. About 80 percent of those parents had recorded criminal convictions; 20 percent were deported based on their immigration status alone.

NBC's Rich Gardella contributed to this report.