Talk of birthright repeal stokes fear among some Tampa Bay immigrants

Published October 30 2018
Updated October 30 2018

TAMPA — Jaclyn Boland’s heart sank when she opened her inbox Tuesday morning.

An email rounding up top news headlines contained the last immigration initiative from the White House: President Donald Trump said he plans to sign an executive order that removing the right to citizenship for babies of non-citizens and unauthorized immigrants born on U.S. soil.

Boland, chief executive officer of the InterCultural Advocacy Institute and the Hispanic Outreach Center in Clearwater, immediately thought of one of her clients — an undocumented Mexican woman in her 30s with one young child and a baby on the way. She came to the United States for better life for herself and her family, and now she will have yet another reason to worry about their future here, Boland said.

"The mental health part is what worries me," she said. "The fear, and the not knowing what’s going to happen. If that were to come through, what would that mean and how would it affect the children?"

"It’s alarming, upsetting, saddening," said Pamela Gomez, Tampa Bay regional organizer for the Florida Immigrant Coalition. "It speaks about the times that we’re in, that we’re living in fascism in this country right now. The xenophobic, racist tendencies are coming out."

Trump made the comments in an interview taped Monday for the news series Axios on HBO. Most legal scholars say the order he described would violate the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Instead, they said, Trump would need Congress to amend the Constitution or the Supreme Court to overturn its prior interpretation of the law. An executive order from Trump would almost certainly spark a legal battle.

A successful repeal of birthright citizenship would affect thousands of families in the Tampa Bay area. A national study by the Pew Research Center released last year said the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area has about 75,000 undocumented immigrants, the 27th-largest population in the country.

Arturo Rios, a St. Petersburg immigration attorney, said his office by Tuesday afternoon had fielded about two dozen calls from clients concerned about a repeal.

"People are definitely shocked and scared by this, people whose hopes are pinned on existing law," said Rios, who also teaches immigration at Stetson University. "I’m telling them what I’m telling you, that it’s absurd and not to worry. The ones who were born here are safe and the president can’t take away their rights."

But the latest round of headlines pile atop an onslaught of disheartening developments for many immigrant families since January 2017.

Trump has backed a plan to create a merit-based immigration system and eliminated protections for young undocumented immigrants. In November, his administration revoked the legal status of roughly 50,000 Haitians living here under the Temporary Protected Status program.

Repealing birthright citizenship would create what Michael Fix, senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., has called "a self-perpetuating class that would be excluded from social membership for generations."

Exclusion is the opposite of what immigrants want for their families, advocates say.

So many immigrants are trying to work their way through the arduous process to become a citizen that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is grappling with a backlog of applications.

"We know that the pathway to citizenship is not an easy path and it’s not one that’s open to many," Gomez said. "Their children should not have to pay the price and be treated any less than any other child in this country."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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