Gov. Jan Brewer said Wednesday she is open to the idea of denying automatic citizenship to children of illegal immigrants even though she conceded that's not what she was taught in school.
"I think that it's worthwhile to have it vetted and debated," the governor said in response to the proposal by several Arizona legislators to have the state and not the federal government determine citizenship. Brewer said she wants to hear more details from the sponsors.
But various Hispanic activist groups and several Democratic lawmakers said separately Wednesday they think the idea should be stillborn.
Senate Minority Leader David Schapira, D-Tempe, noted the state is facing an immediate $825 million deficit for the balance of this fiscal year, with an anticipated $1.4 billion gap between revenues and expenses for the new budget year that begins July 1. Yet he said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, went to Washington this week - just days ahead of the session scheduled to begin Monday - to be part of a press conference "on an issue that has nothing to do with Arizona's fiscal situation."
Kavanagh said the criticisms are predictable.
"If they don't want to argue the merits or lack of merits of the Birthright Citizenship bill, then they should just be quiet," he said, rather that making "attacks that don't even have a foundation in truth." Anyway, Kavanagh said he has been working on the budget for the past two months.
But even Brewer said she is concerned that a high-profile debate over who gets a citizenship birth certificate and who does not might become a distraction away from the central issue of the state's finances.
"I think our first priority, of course, is to get the budget out, secondly, to get our economy and jobs created here in Arizona for the people of Arizona," the governor said. "If we can accomplish those things, I think that's our No. 1 priority."
Under the plan, states that pass the legislation would have two types of birth certificates: one when a parent could show citizenship or permanent residency, and a different one labeled as a certificate of birth for a non-citizen.
Senate President-elect Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, one of the chief proponents of the plan, said that would restore the 14th Amendment to the original post-Civil War intent of ensuring that blacks, particularly former slaves, are citizens.
Brewer conceded what Pearce and other sponsors want goes against what has been the law of the land for more than a century.
"What I would believe is what we all learned in regards to the Constitution in that particular 14th Amendment is that if you were born in the United States that you became a citizen of the United States," she said. But that, the governor said, does not automatically make the proposal improper.
And she specifically rejected the possibility that having Arizona legislators taking the national lead on this issue gives the state a reputation of intolerance.
"I think what it says is that Arizona's on the forefront of this border issue," Brewer said. She said it is the responsibility of Arizona legislators to deal with this kind of issue.
"We know that there are people coming across the border, having babies, getting United States citizenship," the governor said. "I don't know if they feel we can sustain that."
But Antonio Bustamante called that argument "nonsense." He said granting citizenship to all children born in this country is not an incentive to cross the border illegally.
"They do not come here so their children will be U.S. citizens," said Bustamante, a member of Los Abogados, the state's Hispanic bar association.
"They come here because we demand their presence because we have labor that has to be filled," he said. "And they're going to come here regardless."
Bustamante called the legislation "mean-spirited racism."