An unseemly whiff of populist racism hangs heavy in Washington's summer political doldrums as embattled Republicans muse publicly about stripping citizenship from babies born in America to illegal immigrants.
"We can't just have people swimming across the river having children here," says Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, a hitherto relatively moderate voice for immigration reform, as odious talk of so-called "anchor babies" fills the airwaves.
No one can actually cite an example of a pregnant Mexican swimming the Rio Grande to give birth. But, with mid-term elections looming in November and a polarizing brouhaha flaring over Arizona's tough and controversial law aimed at outing and ousting illegals, it's perhaps not surprising that the periodic and nasty debate over repealing the 14th amendment has emerged again.
"Politically it can't be done, and it is simply a distraction from seeking true immigration reform," Bill Ong Hing, a University of San Francisco School of Law professor, said in a media conference call.
It was Republicans who, in the wake of the Civil War, championed the 14th Amendment making anyone born in the United States a citizen. It was an inclusive and reconciliatory effort, making sure that the children of slaves and immigrants were full citizens. And the Supreme Court sealed the deal with an unequivocal judgment that even the U.S.-born offspring of indentured Chinese labourers imported to build railways were citizens.
But some leading Republicans such as Senator John McCain, who like Mr. Graham needs to shore up sagging right-wing support, have jettisoned previously moderate positions on immigration in favour of a much harder line.
Tough talk about anchor babies postpones progress on the vexed issue of immigration reform and the uncertain future facing tens of millions of illegals.
Instead, those trumpeting the issue this summer talk vaguely of hearings about what to do with the 14th amendment. Democrats, who control committee chairmanships, have dismissed such calls.
Democrats, especially those facing tough races from states with large Latino populations, are wary of the pitfalls of the immigration debate while delighting as Republicans keep irking the fastest-growing of America's minorities.
"They've either taken leave of their senses or their principles," says Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Polls show Americans evenly split when asked: "Would you favour or oppose a Constitutional amendment to prevent children born here from becoming U.S. citizens unless their parents are also U.S. citizens?"
But any change to the Constitution requires passage by a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress and then ratification by 38 of the 50 states; an near-impossibility on a contentious issue such as immigration. Even the equal-rights amendment - outlawing inequity of men and women and first proposed 28 years ago - still languishes unratified.
While the broader immigration issue seems likely to play an important role in some closely contested mid-term elections this fall, the sub issue of "birthright" citizenship affects only a relatively small number of U.S. citizens. The even more emotive issue of "birth tourism" involves even fewer. A handful of internet sites and hotels in big American cities tout short-stay visits for pregnant women seeking citizenship for their newborns. Similar schemes are available in Canada and the handful of other Western countries that confer citizenship on all those born in the country.
The Pew Hispanic Center, in a study released Wednesday, estimated that roughly 7 per cent of U.S. citizens under 18 were born into families in which both parents were not American citizens. "An estimated 340,000 of the 4.3 million babies born in the United States in 2008 were the offspring of unauthorized immigrants," the study says.