article

06.12.10

Immigration's New Poster Child

Katherine Figueroa, 10, is a U.S.-born child of illegal aliens. Terry Greene Sterling on why Arizona lawmakers want countless kids like her stripped of citizenship and kicked out of the country.

Ever since June 2009, when her parents were arrested for toiling illegally in a Phoenix car wash and paraded with zip-tied wrists in front of TV news cameras by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies, 10-year-old Katherine Figueroa has been a poster child for the Arizona pro-immigrant movement.

On Thursday, she went national. She was introduced as the “voice of children affected by anti-migrant laws” by Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who organized an informal hearing in Washington to show the human suffering caused by current immigration policy. Holding back tears, Figueroa recalled feelings of fear, confusion, and helplessness stemming from her parents’ arrest, and spoke of nightmares in which deputies arrested her and the relatives she lived with while her parents served out their jail sentences.

“I am still afraid of the deputies,” she told the panel.

“I want to help the people who are in jail for just working,” Figueroa said, “so they can get out of jail and be with their families.”

Things may get more frightening for Figueroa and kids like her very soon. Insiders on both sides of the immigration debate say there’s a fierce new battle looming over a well-organized and growing movement to deprive children, like Katherine, born on American soil, of their U.S. citizenship if one of their parents is an “illegal alien.”

Those pushing the change have a name for Katherine and her cohort: “anchor babies.” And it’s a big group; the country is believed to host 10.8 million unauthorized immigrants. The Pew Hispanic Center, using 2008 data, reported in 2009 that about 4 million U.S. citizen kids have at least one unauthorized immigrant parent.

For Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, it’s too many. Pearce, who sponsored SB 1070, the harshest immigration law in the country to date, announced recently that he will introduce a measure next year to ban issuance of birth certificates to babies born on Arizona soil if one or more parent is an “illegal alien.”

“Anchor babies are an unconstitutional declaration of citizenship to those born of non-Americans. It's wrong, and it's immoral,” he told The Arizona Republic on June 6. (The senator is on vacation this week and unavailable or comment, a staffer in his office says, and he does not have a spokesman.)

If Pearce succeeds in getting an “anchor baby” law passed in Arizona, it will likely spur copycat laws in other states and force a constitutional showdown in the courts, advocates on both sides of the debate say. (That certainly happened with his last proposal, now state law, which requires all Arizona policemen to check papers of people “lawfully” detained, stopped or arrested “when practicable” if the cops have “reasonable suspicion” that the person is in the country illegally, and allows Arizona residents to sue cities and counties if their police forces are not adequately enforcing the immigration law.)

David Selden, a Phoenix attorney who challenged the constitutionality of another Pearce-sponsored law that levies sanctions against employers who hire unauthorized workers, says Arizona is the “test-case state” for immigration laws that get traction nationally. (The sanctions law is expected to get a U.S. Supreme Court hearing.)

Selden points out that some critics of the proposed Pearce anchor-babies plan see an Orwellian motive at work—viewing the move to deprive such babies of citizenship as an effort by anti-immigrant politicos who have “alienated a Latino electorate” to cut down a “future supply of voters” who oppose them.

The “birthright citizenship” movement has been around for years, but earlier bills floated by Pearce, lawmakers in other states, and congressmen in Washington were either defeated, vetoed, or stalled in committees.

A birthright-citizenship law would be “unconstitutional, impractical, expensive and complicated,” says Michele Waslin, a senior policy analyst with the Immigration Policy Center, which favors comprehensive immigration reform.

Waslin calls the birthright-citizenship movement “a distraction that moves us from fixing a broken immigration system.”

But in Arizona, Pearce’s vow to fix the “anchor baby” issue is viewed as more than a distraction.

“This needs to be taken very seriously,” says Daniel Ortega, a Phoenix lawyer who chairs the National Council of La Raza. The passage of SB 1070, he says, demonstrates the willingness of Arizona lawmakers to be “swayed” by Pearce to pass “unconstitutional laws.”

“It is indicative of a very disturbing national trend,” says Alfredo Gutierrez, a former Arizona state senator who is now a human-rights activist in Phoenix. “I think depriving citizenship to children of the undocumented has been the No. 1 of educated [anti-immigrant] activists for years,” he says.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group with a legal arm that helped draft SB 1070 and other immigration laws, provides lawmakers and anti-migrant activists with talking points and statistics that have shaped the national immigration debate.

“We do not advocate mass deportation,” says FAIR spokesman Dustin Carnevale. But he notes the organization believes in the imposition and enforcement of laws that will result in all unauthorized immigrants eventually leaving the United States.

The group also believes a birthright-citizenship law deserves a constitutional court test, to see if the 14th Amendment citizenship clause includes children of “illegal aliens,” Carnevale says.

In an upcoming distribution of its 2010 “fact sheets” on the cost of illegal immigration to each state, FAIR will report that such costs have soared even as most experts agree the numbers of unauthorized immigrants in the United States has declined.

The new FAIR numbers signal an economic rationale for birthright-citizenship laws, because they factor in the estimated cost of education and health care for U.S. citizen children of at least one unauthorized immigrant parent.

Jack Martin, FAIR’s special projects director, who is responsible for collecting the numbers for the state-by-state illegal-immigration cost reports, tells The Daily Beast that the presence of such U.S. citizen children in the United States is “a result of the fact that the parents came into the country illegally.”

FAIR’s reports for all the states have yet to be released, but the Arizona “fact sheet” on the costs of illegal immigration was distributed in May in the wake of the SB 1070 controversy.

The Arizona numbers, which have already been cited by Pearce, show an alarming increase of the cost to taxpayers of “illegal immigration”—from $1.3 billion in 2004 to $2.7 billion in 2010— largely because the costs of health care and education of citizen kids of at least one undocumented parent were added into the mix.

Critics of FAIR’s numbers say they are fundamentally unsound, arguing that they fail to account for the counterbalance of childhood education and health-care costs: All those lifetime economic contributions of “anchor babies” after they become working, consuming, taxpaying citizens.

And Katherine Figueroa, for one, will likely pay a lot of taxes.

She has followed her parents’ efforts to fight their deportation in federal immigration court in Phoenix. Their fight, coupled with her willingness to be the voice of children of the undocumented, have inspired her to attend law school, just like her heroine, Sonia Sotomayor. “I want to help the people who are in jail for just working,” she says shortly after returning to Phoenix from her Washington trip, “so they can get out of jail and be with their families.”

Terry Greene Sterling is an Arizona journalist who blogs about immigration in Phoenix at terrygreenesterling.com. Her book, ILLEGAL, Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone, will be published July 1st by the Globe Pequot Press.