For the most powerful man in the Senate, denying American citizenship to children born to undocumented aliens is the next step in the Arizona-led crusade to confront illegal immigration in the country.
But a majority of Senate President Russell Pearce’s colleagues don’t see it as a priority, and they may not go along if the so-called birthright citizenship bill is voted on before the Legislature fixes the budget and aids a weak economy.
In fact, a document that outlines Senate Republicans’ focus this year is unlikely to include the birthright-citizenship legislation, said a top Republican in charge of preparing the agenda.
“At this point, it doesn’t look like there is enough support among the caucus members to include it in the majority plan,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Bundgaard said.
Nevertheless, Bundgaard said there is a “good level of support” in his caucus for the birthright proposal, but he can’t quantify how much.
The importance of the majority plan in aiding the passage of specific proposals is debatable, and many, including Bundgaard, stress that the exclusion of the birthright bill from the plan doesn’t wreck its chances of making it to the governor’s desk.
But in a political environment that often operates on perception and nuance, the exclusion sends the message to voters that the Legislature’s priorities are aligned with theirs, said Steve Voeller, president of the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, which advocates for pro-market policies and often spends money in elections.
“The signal is that the Legislature heard what the voters said in November,” Voeller said. “They campaigned on budget and economy and jobs, and they won overwhelmingly, so it makes perfect sense that the majority program is going to be focused on just those things.”
In addition, an inference can be drawn that in making the decision, the majority leadership was responding to Senate Republicans who expressed wariness — and weariness — with the immigration proposal.
“The majority plan is what the will of the body is, and if different members aren’t comfortable with that being in the majority plan, it shouldn’t be in there,” said Sen. Michele Reagan, a Scottsdale Republican, who added that the Legislature’s focus should be job creation.
Several lawmakers in both parties and some in the business community have argued that the birthright proposal will distract the Legislature from solving more pressing problems.
They said including it in the majority plan would have sent the wrong message to businesses.
“It would certainly send a negative signal to the local business community,” said Sen. John McComish, a Republican from Phoenix, “because the local business community does not want to see that legislation go forward, and to make it part of the majority program I think would be a little bit of a slap in the face.”
The majority agenda, which is unveiled annually, acts as a template of policies that Republicans want to accomplish during the session.
It also represents what all caucus members agree on. Put another way, if the birthright proposal were included in the plan it would have more forcefully shown that it is widely supported in the Republican caucus.
But its critics would be mistaken to take comfort in the proposal’s absence from the majority plan. It may not be in there, but its backers are pushing ahead with their goal of challenging the long-held interpretation of the 14th Amendment that the legal status of parents has no bearing on conferring an American citizenship to their children.
Actually, Sen. Ron Gould, a Lake Havasu City Republican, already persuaded several lawmakers to cosponsor the bill, which he submitted on Jan. 27.
And Gould isn’t bothered that his bill won’t be in the majority agenda.
First off, he didn’t really push to have it included, he said.
Also, he doesn’t put much stock in the majority plan. Gould called it a “piece of paper that they put out, then we forget about it, in reality.”
The proposal has its share of critics, but it has powerful allies in all the right places.
Pearce, the Senate president, said the birthright proposal is “part of Americans’ majority agenda.”
“Part of our program is clearly to stop inducements to reward those who break our laws,” Pearce said. “We’re not going to let the left use excuses for us not to continue with the agenda that is good for America.”
Pearce dismissed objections to the birthright legislation coming from some in the business sector.
“So, now, they’re not only immigrants in waiting but now they’re workers in waiting?” Pearce said. “No, it only sends a bad message to the illegal business community — those that would continue to have policies that I think are bad for America.”
That’s why Senate Minority Leader David Schapira, a critic of the proposal, said that what ultimately counts is whether Republicans bring the bill up for a vote.
“If they’re going to give the bill a hearing and vote for it and pass it through then that’s what matters,” he said. “Who cares if it’s on their agenda or not?”
Dennis Burke, the U.S. attorney for Arizona, blasted the proposed legislation as “blatantly unconstitutional.”
“It’ just a non-starter,” Burke said. “It doesn’t really take any kind of expert to realize that they’re basically pushing for 50 different state laws determining who would be a U.S. citizen. It is unconstitutional and unworkable.”
Burke said this has been settled law for more than a century. For Burke, the 14th Amendment’s language is unambiguous in granting citizenship to children who are born in the country, and case law backs up that interpretation.