By Leonard Pitts
Here’s how you fix illegal immigration. Pass a bill that: (a) toughens border security; (b) creates some mechanism to tame the draconian process that now faces anyone who seeks to come here legally; (c) penalizes those who are here illegally but also offers them a path to full citizenship.
Or, pass a bill to protect us from anchor babies.
The former solution is not mine, though I support it. It was actually the solution offered by President Bush in 2007 and crushed in the Senate that same year. Though flawed, the bill offered at least the framework of a credible answer to the problem.
The latter solution is the one now being proffered by lawmakers in – do you really need to ask? – Arizona. State lawmakers there began holding hearings this week on proposals to change the definition of U.S. citizenship. If they have their way, no longer would you be able to say you were an American simply because you happened to be born in America.
This is how Arizona legislators would respond to a “problem” that exists largely in their fevered imaginations: armies of pregnant Mexican women waddling across the desert to give birth to infants who, having been born in the U.S.A., automatically enjoy the benefits of American citizenship and can confer the same upon their families.
And here, it is important to establish a few things.
The first is that even if immigrant women were coming here to give birth to so-called anchor babies – a claim Politifact.org rates dubious at best – the fact is that under existing law, such children can’t sponsor their parents for citizenship until they turn 21.
Even then, the parents are required to return home for 10 years before applying for citizenship.
The second is that states do not define citizenship. The federal government does.
The third is that any law Arizona does pass would be unlikely to survive its first court challenge. The 14th Amendment clearly defines a citizen as person “born or naturalized” in the United States. Any attempt to tamper with that amendment should alarm all Americans but particularly African-Americans, given that it is the 14th Amendment, along with the 13th and 15th, that anchored our citizenship and provided the legal basis for Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
For all that, the most striking thing about the Arizona proposals – and CNN reports that 40 other states are weighing similar measures – is not their overreach but their shrill incoherence.
It is worth noting that this is the 25th anniversary of an actual immigration amnesty signed into law by none other than President Ronald Reagan.
That this icon of conservatism would, like Bush, find himself so strikingly out of step with his followers today testifies eloquently to how strident, nonsensical and unpragmatic this debate has become. Rather than offer workable solutions, lawmakers are busy outlawing ethnic studies classes, requiring Latinos to carry papers like Jews in prewar Germany, decrying anchor babies and other boogeymen, competing to prove who can be toughest on dirt poor Mexicans, rousing the rabble in their xenophobic righteousness.
This is not statesmanship. It is not serious policymaking. It is not even adult.
It is a temper tantrum, the incoherent bawling of those who see fundamental demographic change coming and like it not one bit. They scream in the face of an incoming wave. But the wave comes just the same.
And the sad thing is, none of this angst and anguish was ever necessary.
We could have fixed illegal immigration long ago.
Unfortunately, that’s no longer the point. Maybe it never really was.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. His email is lpittsmiamiherald.com.