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The impact of illegal immigrant births

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Tess Vigeland: A report out this week from the Pew Hispanic Center is sure to fuel the fires over repeal of the 14th Amendment. That’s the section of the Constitution that grants automatic citizenship to any baby born in the United States. The Pew study says in 2008, 340,000 of those babies were born to at least one parent who was in this country illegally. That’s nearly one in 12 newborns.

Marketplace’s Amy Scott looks at what that might mean for the economy.

Amy Scott: The Federation for American Immigration Reform is one group that wants Congress to change the 14th Amendment, so that only babies born to U.S. citizens and legal residents get automatic citizenship.

Spokesman Ira Mehlman says children born to illegal immigrants cost taxpayers billions of dollars in social services.

Ira Mehlman: By and large, we’re talking about a population that earns very low incomes. And their children, their U.S. citizen children, are entitled to a full range of benefits as a result of the low incomes that their parents have.

But immigrants without papers pay taxes, too. Steven Camorata is with the Center for Immigration Studies. His group favors fewer immigrants, but better treatment of those who are here. Camorata says a few years ago he calculated that undocumented immigrants paid about $16 billion a year to the federal government in various taxes.

Steven Camorata: Unfortunately, they were creating about $26 billion in costs at the federal level, and many of those costs are associated with their U.S.-born children.

But Camorata says even if those kids weren’t automatic citizens, taxpayers would cover a lot of the costs anyway — like access to emergency health care and public education. He says the solution isn’t revoking their right to citizenship, but doing a better job of keeping their parents from coming here.

Critics of automatic citizenship, like Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, say it’s a magnet that draws people across the border. Some refer to the children born to these immigrants as “anchor babies” who make it easier for family members to come to the U.S. But advocates for undocumented immigrants say people simply come here for opportunity.

Doris Meissner with the Migration Policy Institute says many are here several years before starting families.

Doris Meissner: To equate this with the idea that people cross the border in order to give birth to a U.S.-citizen child, that is not an accurate reflection of what’s going on.

Meissner says it’s no surprise that so many babies are born to undocumented workers. They tend to be young, and therefore, more likely to have babies.

I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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