Sitting in the yellow illumination of her trailer’s porch light, Luz Imelda Ramirez ticks off the opportunities now available to her three daughters, all because of a small piece of paper certifying their birth on American soil. Ramirez, originally from a poor community in Sonora, Mexico, is an illegal immigrant. But her children were born here in Tucson, and therefore are United States citizens. It is a distinction Ramirez does not take lightly.
“Thank god my children are citizens, because they will be able to go to university,” she said. “My oldest has good grades and got a scholarship. That’s why I came here, for my children to have a different life than I had.”
Spread between Tucson’s Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and the beginning of Route 86, Ajo Way is a scrubby stretch of fast food restaurants, graying storefronts and trailer parks. As late afternoon faded into evening , several families gathered in Ramirez’s adopted community, sitting on white plastic chairs, eating tortilla chips and rehearsing just what to say if ever questioned by the Tucson police.
To the dozen or so men and women — all currently residing in Arizona illegally — running a red light is not a minor violation — it can lead to the discovery of their unlawful status, the beginning of deportation proceedings and the destruction of families already living in a state of apprehension and instability.
Arizona Senate Bill 1070, one of the most sweeping and stringent anti-illegal immigration statutes in decades, was just the beginning.
SB 1070’s author, State Sen. Russell Pearce, is now drafting a new law, unperturbed by the immediate federal injunction blocking the bill’s most controversial provisions. His proposed legislation would prohibit hospitals from issuing birth certificates to children born in the U.S. to undocumented parents, a right guaranteed them by the 14th Amendment.
The issue has re-popularized the term “anchor baby,” used by some to describe children born to undocumented parents. Originally coined in reference to young Vietnamese who traveled by boat to the U.S. in the early 1980s and ’90s, the term itself has spawned angry debate. Introduced into today’s lexicon of immigration rhetoric by such high-profile conservative personalities as Ron Paul, Lindsey Graham and Bill O’Reilly, it has infuriated many immigrant advocates who say the term is pejorative and dehumanizing.
Semantics aside, the Grand Canyon State, wielding its frustration with the federal government like a flare gun, seems intent on focusing national attention on immigration reform by any means necessary, including the passage of legislation that critics say outwardly defies the constitution of the United States.
“Here in Arizona, the legislature has a long tradition of completely disregarding not only our state constitution … but certainly disregarding the federal constitution,” said State Rep. Matt Heinz. “(Sen. Russell’s proposed legislation) would be just another in a long line of examples of that body completely disregarding the constitutional rights and privileges of our citizens.”
Heinz, one of two Democrats who represent Arizona’s 29th district, lives on a narrow, colorful lane in the heart of his constituency in Pima County, which includes parts of Tucson and Littletown. Elected in 2008, Heinz is also a practicing physician at Tucson Medical Center.
As planes from the nearby Air Force base roared noisily over his courtyard, Heinz explained the conditions that have recently made his state such a fertile environment for radical immigration reform.
“Arizona is a very proud and independent state, with a bit of a libertarian streak” he said. “That is one of the reasons I love the state, and one of the reasons why we sometimes get in a little bit of trouble.”
In recent years, Arizona’s longstanding belief in the importance of state autonomy has coalesced with an acute frustration at the federal government’s perceived lack of effort to fight illegal immigration. SB 1070 represented a boiling over of these emotions, and the citizenship legislation is an indication the problem is far from resolved.
This frustration with the federal government reaches across party lines.
Representative Vic Williams, a Republican from the 26th district in southern Tucson, campaigned in 2008 on his proud support of the Sen. Pearce’s legislation.
“Our federal government has refused to do anything,” Williams said. “Arizona has changed the national discussion in this country. We have struck a nerve.”
Nerve or not, prohibiting the issuance of birth certificates in U.S. hospitals is in direct conflict with the language of the Constitution. Section One of the 14th Amendment states, “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.”
Some proponents of Pearce’s proposed bill seek to challenge the current interpretation of the amendment. However, established case law protects the rights of all children born in America, said Nina Rabin, director of the Bacon Immigration Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona. “I think it’s clear that (such a challenge) would be a losing battle,” Rabin said. “I mean, it’s not a realistic thing.”
Williams did not dispute the wording of the amendment. Instead, he argued that its intent was being abused.
“Now we have hospitals that advertise abroad that you can come here to the U.S. and have your child,” Williams said. “You can plan your vacation around it. … I don’t know if that was the original intent of the 14th Amendment.”
So would such legislation, seemingly in defiance of the federal government, pass in Arizona? Heinz certainly thinks so.
“I’ve heard the governor has already signed off on this,” Heinz said. “And ultimately, if something like this gets through our Senate and House, based on what happened this past Senate, I imagine, unfortunately, it will be signed by the governor.”
Williams refused to officially endorse the legislation. But he did point to strong grassroots support for Pearce’s proposed bill among his constituents. If put to a vote, the bill will have “overwhelming support” back home, he said.
Williams should not count on support from Ramirez, who objects to the proposed law on both legal and logistical grounds.
“Well, it’s very unconstitutional, because the children will be neither from the United States nor from Mexico,” Ramirez said. “It will be a problem for them when they grow up, when they’re going to school. What documents are they going to present? It’s just illogical. It’s not like they’re animals without papers.”
Oblivious to a debate that, if enacted retroactively, would dramatically alter his future, a little boy, no more than 3 years old, threw chunks of gravel at Ramirez’s latticework porch, his mouth stained blue by the melting peanut M&Ms he clutched in his hand. His young mother sat a few feet away, watching as volunteers from the immigrant advocacy group Derechos Hermanos led a role-playing exercise. Although initially the adults chuckled awkwardly as they sat in their “car,” the laughter stopped as the “police officer” began to badger both driver and passengers, demanding picture IDs and proof of legal status. The policeman finally ordered the driver and one of the passengers out of the vehicle and radioed “la migra,” the Border Patrol, to come pick them up. The tension among those observing was palpable.
“Really, the worry in the community is that (parents) are going to be taken away from their kids,” Ramirez said. “That they’ll be sent back to Mexico, and their children will be stuck here in the United States alone.”
Their fears are real.
Teresa Guerrero works for the Tucson Unified School District, in the government programs and community outreach office. Every year she sees countless children pulled out of school or forced to live with friends or relatives after their parents get deported. Sometimes mothers or fathers will live in Mexico during the week, only able to visit their children across the border on weekends, she said.
At her Phoenix law practice, Judy Flanagan works with undocumented parents fighting to stay in the U.S. with their children. But she said the reality is cases like these are “next to impossible to win.”
Parents of so-called “anchor babies” cannot file their own citizenship petitions until after the child’s 21st birthday. If the parents stayed in the U.S. illegally for longer than a year following the birth of the child — and Flanagan claimed many do — they will have to wait an additional 10 years before beginning the application process.
Ultimately, Ramirez said illegal immigrant parents want the same things for their children as parents whose families have lived in this country for generations.
“Every mother wants their children to have a better life than they did,” she said.
In the war that is Arizona’s constant struggle with immigration reform, Sen. Pearce is preparing to open up a new front. But as Ramirez looked with satisfaction at the aftermath of the Derechos Hermanos meeting, it was clear the opposition forces were already gearing up for the fight.
“I used to be afraid to say I don’t have documents,” Ramirez said. “But now I’m no longer afraid. Because a piece of paper doesn’t make you any different than me and that’s what I’ve learned at these groups. Because I’m a human being, I have rights.”
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