In the wake of Arizona’s controversial law empowering police to stop and detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally, Arizona Republicans are working on legislation that would deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants born in the U.S. Such a law, aimed at so-called “anchor babies,” would probably not be constitutional. While there has been some debate over the meaning of the “natural-born citizen” clause in the Constitution, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark in 1898 that it was meant to invoke the English common law rule in force in the colonial that every child born there was a natural-born subject, even if the child’s parents were not citizens. The proposed law would also seem to go against the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment—put in to ensure that American blacks could not be denied citizenship—which says that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”
But while it’s supporters insist that the proposed law can be squared with the Constitution, the truth is that it is as much a political maneuver as a serious policy proposal. Most Arizonans are unhappy about illegal immigration, and targeting illegal immigrants is—in the short term at least—an easy way to score political points. A recent Washington Post-ABC poll found that the law asking police to question people suspected of being in the country illegally is popular not only with in Arizona, but across the country, with 58% Americans saying they support it.
But that doesn’t make targeting illegal immigrants good politics. While the police-stop law has broad popular support, it may nevertheless turn off more swing voters than it attracts. It is particularly unpopular, of course, among the crucial, growing block of Hispanic voters, who bpth worry they may be targeted because of how they look and are more likely to be concerned about how Hispanic immigrants are treated. The same Washington Post-ABC poll found that just 31% of non-whites support the police stop law. And it since its passage Democratic officials report that the number of Hispanics registering for the party has increased fivefold. “Before, it used to be hard,” Luis Heredia, executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, told The Arizona Republic. “Now, they are just saying, ‘Can you give me a form?’ or, ‘I am already registered, but I know someone who isn’t.'”
What’s happening in Arizona now bears a striking resemblance to what happened in California in the 1990s, when Republican Governor Pete Wilson managed to win reelection by campaigning for Proposition 187, which was meant to deny illegal immigrants access to health care, public education, and other government services. But Wilson’s campaign helped drive Hispanic voters into the arms of the Democratic Party and turn California into a reliably blue state.
Arizona, of course, is more conservative than California was in the 1990s. But in the long run it is difficult to see how the Republicans can win either in Arizona or across the nation without the help of the rapidly growing Hispanic population. As Michael Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter, wrote recently,
… this must be recognized for what it is: political suicide. Consider that Hispanics make up 40 percent of the K-12 students in Arizona, 44 percent in Texas, 47 percent in California, 54 percent in New Mexico. Whatever temporary gains Republicans might make feeding resentment of this demographic shift, the party identified with that resentment will eventually be voted into singularity. In a matter of decades, the Republican Party could cease to be a national party.