House Republicans are looking closely at ending birthright citizenship and building a barrier along the entire U.S.-Mexico border as they search for solutions to illegal immigration.
A task force of party leaders and members active on immigration has met since the summer to try to figure out where consensus exists, and several participants said those two ideas have floated to the top of the list of possibilities to be included either in an immigration-enforcement bill later this year or in a later comprehensive immigration overhaul.
"There is a general agreement about the fact that citizenship in this country should not be bestowed on people who are the children of folks who come into this country illegally," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, who is participating in the "unity dinners," the group of Republicans trying to find consensus on immigration.
Birthright citizenship, or what critics call "anchor babies," means that any child born on U.S. soil is granted citizenship, with exceptions for foreign diplomats. That attracts illegal aliens, who have children in the United States; those children later can sponsor their parents for legal immigration.
Most lawmakers had avoided the issue, fearing that change would require a constitutional amendment -- the 14th Amendment reads in part: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States."
But several Republicans said recent studies suggest otherwise.
"There's been recent scholarship that says we can do it by statute, and we ought to try," said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, who usually finds himself on the opposite side of immigration issues from Mr. Tancredo.
"How in the world can you explain that's a good policy to have? It simply doesn't promote respect for the rule of law," Mr. Flake said.
Several lawmakers said the U.S. and Mexico are the only major Western countries to have birthright citizenship. Most European countries have moved away from birthright citizenship in recent decades.
"I am as surprised as anyone that this thing has got legs," Mr. Tancredo said, adding that he views it as a major step forward for the immigration debate. "This is the issue that motivated me to deal with immigration."
While some members said it could be part of an immigration bill later this year, Rep. Dan Lungren, California Republican, said it will take longer to drum up public support for such a major change, though he backs ending the policy.
"Some of us believe we have depreciated the value of citizenship," he said.
Meanwhile, the idea of a fence or other barrier also is gaining support.
At this week's "unity dinner," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, said he supports a barrier system of fences in some places and electronic surveillance or vehicle barriers in others, one participant said.
Mr. Hastert's spokesman said the speaker would not talk about the private meetings.
Border barriers received a big boost yesterday when Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, announced a broad enforcement bill with a fence as its centerpiece.
"The fence works," Mr. Hunter said. He led the fight earlier in this Congress to complete a 14-mile section of fence near San Diego, and he and other members said the success there gives the idea momentum.
"Those who say the fence won't work, frankly, don't have experience with fences," said Rep. Geoff Davis, a Kentucky Republican who is supporting Mr. Hunter's bill.
But Mr. Flake and fellow Arizona Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe, who both support legalizing illegal aliens and raising legal immigration levels by 400,000 per year, said a fence would not work.
Mr. Flake said it would not affect those illegal aliens -- about half of the total immigrant population -- who came to the United States on legal temporary visas and have overstayed. He also said he does not want it to sap energy from a comprehensive solution.
"My fear is people will say let's build a fence and put off any guest-worker, border enforcement, interior enforcement for years," he said.
Rep. John Shadegg, the Arizona Republican who runs the dinners, said they are reaching some areas of consensus, though he would not specify and said committee chairmen would have to write the eventual bill.
But he said the effort has convinced the White House to do more to enforce the borders -- something he said was reflected both in President Bush's remarks upon signing the homeland security spending bill and in congressional testimony by the Homeland Security secretary.
Mr. Shadegg said the group has talked about border barriers and electronic surveillance, and said he is a fan of using unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol the border, particularly because they can track criminal behavior, which is crucial in establishing a chain of evidence to convict drug or alien smugglers.