Leading Republicans are joining a push to reconsider the constitutional amendment that grants automatic citizenship to people born in the United States.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Tuesday he supports holding hearings on the 14th Amendment right, although he emphasized that Washington's immigration focus should remain on border security.
His comments came as other Republicans in recent days have questioned or challenged birthright citizenship, embracing a cause that had largely been confined to the far right.
The senators include Arizona's John McCain, the party's 2008 presidential nominee; Arizona's Jon Kyl, the GOP whip; Alabama's Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a leading negotiator on immigration legislation.
"I'm not sure exactly what the drafters of the (14th) amendment had in mind, but I doubt it was that somebody could fly in from Brazil and have a child and fly back home with that child, and that child is forever an American citizen," Sessions said.
Legal experts say repealing the citizenship right can be done only through constitutional amendment, requiring approval by two-thirds majorities in Congress and three-fourths of the states. House legislation introduced previously to amend the right has stalled.
The proposals are sure to appeal to conservative voters as immigration plays a central role in November's elections. But they also could carry risks by alienating Hispanic voters and alarming moderates who could view constitutional challenges as extreme.
McConnell and McCain seemed to recognize the risk by offering guarded statements Tuesday.
McCain, who faces a challenge from the right in his re-election bid, said he supports reviewing citizenship rights. But he emphasized that amending the Constitution is a serious matter.
"I believe that the Constitution is a strong, complete and carefully crafted document that has successfully governed our nation for centuries and any proposal to amend the Constitution should receive extensive and thoughtful consideration," he said.
At a press conference, McConnell declined to endorse Graham's call for repealing citizenship rights for children of illegal immigrants. While declining questions, he suggested instead that he would look narrowly into reports of businesses that help immigrants arrange to have babies in the United States in order to win their children U.S. citizenship.
The 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868 in the aftermath of the Civil War, granted citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States," including recently freed slaves.
An estimated 10.8 million illegal immigrants were living in the U.S. as of January 2009, according to the Homeland Security Department. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that as of 2008, there were 3.8 million illegal immigrants in this country whose children are U.S. citizens.
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