MORALES
Eric Draper  /  AP file
Immigration and Naturalization Service agent Julio Morales questions a driver  crossing into the United States from Mexico at the Isleta Port of Entry in El Paso, Texas.
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updated 2/27/2004 5:27:14 PM ET 2004-02-27T22:27:14

They’re known as “anchor babies” — infants born on U.S. soil to foreign mothers, allowing these families to stake a claim to federal benefits by virtue of their child’s birth. While the practice represents a relatively small part of the nation’s complex immigration debate, it is drawing fire this year from Republicans in Congress and groups which advocate tighter control over the U.S. border.

The last time the U.S. government studied the issue – in a 1997 report by the General Accounting Office – it was estimated that some 165,000 children are born to undocumented aliens in the U.S. annually. These households, according to the report, then received about $1.1 billion in federal aid each year, primarily in the form of child support.

“This is not what citizenship should be about," says Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Co., head of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus. Tancredo is one of 20 co-sponsors of the Citizenship Reform Act of 2003, which seeks to close loopholes that allow undocumented aliens and their extended family to drain public resources and win residency through a child’s birth on U.S. soil. “With this legislation, we hope to eliminate the growing problem of anchor babies, and to prevent people from skirting our immigration laws by exploiting their unborn children,” Tancredo says.

The debate over the nature of citizenship -- and GOP efforts to curb access to it -- are playing out against the larger backdrop of post-Sept. 11 reforms in immigration and naturalization policies. In spite of broad federal efforts to restrict and regulate immigration after the Sept. 11 attacks, the number of people slipping into the United States illegally each year remains significant. The Census Bureau estimated that some 8.7 million people reside in the United States without proper documentation. About 60 percent of those crossed the U.S. border without permission.

While those pressing to make U.S. law more restrictive cite both economic and security concerns, critics contend that lawmakers and groups advocating changes in citizenship requirements exaggerating the problem and are taking advantage of the backlash against immigration that followed the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Those who come specifically to give birth are not widespread," says Rodolfo de la Garza, a political science professor at Columbia University in New York. "Those who do come reside closer to the border."

A defining question
The citizenship bill is just one of several efforts in Congress aimed at redefining the legal definition of “citizenship,” a concept governed by the 14th Amendment. Under reform proposals, U.S. citizenship could not be conferred on anyone at birth unless the parents are permanent residents or citizens themselves.

“It’s a very common phenomenon along the borders,” says Jim Dorcy, whose 14 years experience on the San Diego Border Patrol gave him direct experience with numerous undocumented mothers crossing over from Mexico in advanced stages of pregnancy.

“On one particular night,” Dorcy recalls, “an eight month pregnant woman attempted to cross three times.”

Mexico remains by far the largest source of illegal immigration, lured by an American economy that has traditionally welcomed cheap sources of labor. President Bush’s temporary worker program is just one in a series of periodic amnesties aimed at getting undocumented workers on the books. The program seeks to reduce the undocumented population by offering those who can find a job in the U.S. legal status for two three-year periods, after which they become eligible for permanent resident status.

Despite efforts by the Bush administration to stem the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S., federal immigration officials could cite no specific actions to address the "anchor baby" issue. 

“There is nothing in the books that says it is illegal for foreign nationals to come here and give birth,” said a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security. “As long as she can pay the incurred medical cost, is not an intended immigrant, and has not committed visa fraud it is perfectly fine.”

Misjudging motives?
Immigration lawyers and advocacy groups say the focus on pregnant mothers is based on a false premise: that these women remain in the U.S. after birth and, in turn, become a burden on the social welfare system.

“The whole anchor babies phenomenon is a myth,” proclaims Anne Pilsbury, attorney and director of the Central American Legal Assistance (CALA) in Brooklyn, NY. CALA offers free legal assistance to undocumented aliens from El Salvador, Columbia, and Guatemala, and says the vast majority of her clients are seeking amnesty from political persecution in their homelands.

“The majority of the undocumented women I deal with would actually prefer to return home to have children," says Pilsbury. "Most do not even apply for public assistance because they are afraid of being deported and in turn, ruin their future chances of getting green cards.”

The experience of Stephanie Gabbard, a certified legal nurse consultant, offers a different perspective. From 1986 to 2000, Gabbard worked as an obstetrics and labor delivery nurse in California’s San Fernando Valley. Her work gave her extensive direct experience with Mexican mothers having children in the U.S.

“What surprised me most was how willing these women were in admitting to me their illegal status and their intentions to give birth in the U.S.,” says Gabbard. "Simply by having a U.S.-born child,” Gabbard says these women hope to win access to federal benefits and eventually citizenship.

Red tape and loopholes
In fact, legally these women do not qualify for the vast majority of federal programs and only a smattering of state benefits. The U.S.-born child, however, does qualify.

“Although pre-natal care for illegal aliens is available depending on state, access to federal aid and welfare is denied to them,” says Josh Bernstein, director of federal policy at the National Immigration Law Center. “The amount of federal aid given is meant to solely support the U.S.-born child, and is not enough to support an entire family.”

Some contend that this creates an incentive to obtain those benefits fraudulently. Gabbard, the delivery room nurse, says her undocumented patients often possessed several different forms of identification, each with a different name, as well as Social Security Cards.

Although it is hard to quantify the extent of benefit fraud by illegal aliens, a 2002 GAO report does indicate a case involving 22,000 applications filed by an immigration consulting firm for aliens. Out of the 22,000 applications, 5,500 were fraudulent and 4,400 were suspected of being fraudulent. The government estimated that these individuals were paid over $9 million in fees for filing the fraudulent applications.

But does that warrant tinkering with the U.S. Constitution?

Immigrant advocates say no.

“Revising or amending the 14th Amendment would have great ramifications,” says Traci Hong, an attorney for the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, which defends immigrant rights. Hong and others like her believe supporters of citizenship reform are blowing the problem out of proportion.

But pro-reform forces beg to differ.

“The Fourteenth Amendment was originally enacted to ensure citizenship to newly freed slaves and their children after the Civil War,” Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a conservative group. “It does not pertain to children of illegal aliens.”

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