About half of Americans say children of illegal aliens should not receive automatic citizenship, and three in five support a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a poll that will boost Republicans looking to make those proposals part of immigration bills.
Independent pollster Scott Rasmussen said Americans favored a barrier 60 percent to 29 percent, with even higher support — 75 percent — among self-identified conservatives.
His poll of 1,500 adults, taken over the weekend, also found that 49 percent favored ending birthright citizenship and 41 percent opposed such a change. That proposal scored 58 percent support among conservatives, was opposed by 54 percent of liberals and split moderates evenly at 46 percent.
Both ideas have bubbled to near the top of the list of proposals that Republicans are considering as they search for solutions to illegal immigration.
Mr. Rasmussen said Republicans are finding themselves on the popular side of an issue that has the ability to help realign the parties.
“The immigration issue has been cutting across party lines in the last couple of years, and these particular issues are dividing the electorate drawing a line, in a way that’s beneficial for Republicans,” he said.
Mr. Rasmussen’s survey found that 69 percent of Americans were aware that anyone born in the United States is eligible for citizenship.
That is based on the 14th Amendment, which says in part, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”
Several lawyers said that although there has never been a direct legal challenge, the assumption has been that a child “born … in the United States” is a citizen, even if his parents are illegals.
“I’m inclined to think the Constitution requires a broad birthright citizenship rule,” said David A. Martin, a law professor at the University of Virginia. “The language says people ‘subject to the jurisdiction’ — certainly for all kinds of purposes we do assert these children are subject to our jurisdiction.”
But Republicans are beginning to challenge that, saying someone in the United States illegally might not meet the meaning of “subject to the jurisdiction.” A 1985 book by Peter Schuck and Rogers Smith said a change in statute might be enough.
Rep. Nathan Deal, Georgia Republican, is sponsoring such a bill.
“I think there’s enough legal scholarship behind the idea that that phrase of the 14th Amendment, which is not self-defining, is subject to being statutorily defined,” he said.
“The American public is outraged by birthright citizenship, but I’m just not sure they have been fully advised we can do something about it and change the law,” he said.
Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican who has sponsored a constitutional amendment to change birthright citizenship in each Congress since the mid-1990s, said he has never had much interest from other members of Congress until the past few months.
“The climate on immigration has gotten so out of control,” he said. “People in virtually every state are feeling the heat from their constituents.”
But Mr. Martin said it’s the wrong way to attack illegal immigration. He said if the border can be controlled, the question is irrelevant, and if the border cannot be controlled, the change could create a generation of disaffected youths without access to the opportunities provided by American citizenship.
“As a way of going after illegal migration, this is totally the wrong end to start on,” he said. “I think we ought to think very hard before messing with a legal framework that have helped us avoid a lot of these European problems.”