NORCROSS, Ga. — Laila Montezuma was 16 when she sneaked across the Rio Grande from Mexico with her mother, only to be abandoned by the smuggler paid to get them into the United States. They had to hire another “coyote” to reach Houston.
But Montezuma’s own daughter will be spared those struggles. Even if Montezuma and her husband are both deported for being illegal immigrants, little Alma could eventually return to enjoy the opportunities her parents sought here.
“She’s not going to have to fight for anything for the simple fact that she was born here,” Montezuma said as her infant daughter played in a waiting room at a pediatrics clinic in suburban Atlanta.
About 2 million families face the risk of being split up because the children are U.S.-born citizens but the parents are illegal immigrants. At least one lawmaker has proposed ending citizenship by birthright, restricting automatic citizenship at birth to children of U.S. citizens and legal residents.
The United States has one of the most liberal citizenship policies in the world, granting citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil based on an 1868 constitutional amendment. About 3.1 million children are U.S. citizens by birth, even though one or both of their parents are here illegally, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Supporters of that measure say it is the only way to fully integrate immigrants.
“A person has a stake in the society where they are, and you can’t beat that as an integration measure,” said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.
Magnet for illegal immigration?
But critics who want to eliminate the right insist it is a magnet for illegal immigration and an obstacle in efforts to deport millions of illegal immigrants.
“It’s not as large a magnet as jobs, but it will be easier to solve the problem of illegal immigration if we avoid the mixed-family situation,” said Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., who tried unsuccessfully to revoke the citizenship-by-birth right in the immigration bill passed by the House in December.
Deal and other advocates of stricter controls say immigrants come to the U.S. in part to have “anchor babies” — children who can offer their parents some immunity from deportation and then petition for them to receive green cards after turning 21. But just how many immigrants do so is unclear.
Border Patrol agents rescue one or two immigrants in labor every year.
In labor while crossing the border
Daniel McClafferty, part of a Border Patrol medical team, found an 18-year-old woman in shock with her newborn daughter last month about 20 miles north of the border in the desolate foothills of the Arizona desert.
A fellow immigrant had helped deliver the baby, cutting her umbilical cord with a nail clipper. McClafferty helped evacuate the mother on a helicopter and carry the baby to the closest road, four miles away.
Alejandro Ramos with the Mexican consulate in Tucson, Ariz., said the mother had asked for a U.S. birth certificate for her daughter, but her whereabouts were unknown.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers try not to separate families but they do “arrest and remove people every day who have dependents in the U.S.,” said agency spokesman Marc Raimondi.
Immigrants who are ordered deported can ask a judge to let them stay if, among other things, they are able to prove their deportation would be an “extremely unusual hardship” to a U.S.-citizen spouse or child.
Immigration judges typically consider whether children can speak the language of their parents’ native country, whether they have enough money to survive and whether they have serious health problems, said Elaine Komis of the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which runs federal immigration courts.
She’s especially happy for her other 17-year-old son, who was born in Mexico. She carried him across the Arizona desert when he was 12 months old to flee an abusive ex-husband.
“I felt very responsible,” said Medrano, a 40-year-old real estate agent. “It was for him that I would have suffered more if they had sent us to Mexico. Now the future for him will be grandiose. Here, whatever you do, you’ll be successful at.”
Back at the suburban Atlanta clinic serving Spanish-speaking families, Irma Baldonado recalled being two months pregnant when she immigrated illegally to California. She left her first-born daughter in El Salvador with her mother and has not seen the child in seven years. She hopes her two children who were born here will one day get papers for their 10-year-old sister to join them.
“It’s what I wish for the most,” Baldonado said. “Then it will all have been worth it.”
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