Children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants should not get citizenship, Republican U.S. Senate nominee Rand Paul told an English-language Russian television channel shortly after his May 18 primary election victory.
The comment, which surfaced online Friday, stirred the pot again in Kentucky's Senate race.
"We're the only country I know that allows people to come in illegally, have a baby, and then that baby becomes a citizen," Paul told RT, a Russian news channel. "And I think that that should stop also."
Paul, a Bowling Green eye surgeon, has previously said every piece of federal legislation should specify its basis in the Constitution, but some observers called Paul's position on the children of illegal immigrants unconstitutional.
"As his opposition to birthright citizenship indicates, however, he seems quite comfortable contravening the express words of the Constitution," said a posting on thinkprogress.org, voted best liberal blog in one 2006 competition.
The 14th Amendment, passed in the wake of the Civil War, says anyone born in the U.S. is a citizen. It also says states can't deprive anyone of life, liberty or property without due process, or deny equal protection of the law to anyone.
At the time, the obvious goal was to clarify African-Americans' citizenship and protect their rights. More recently, the amendment has become an issue in the hot-button debate over illegal immigration.
Dozens of U.S. Representatives have signed on to a bill that would eliminate "birthright citizenship" for children born to people in the U.S. illegally, though earlier bills to do that haven't gone anywhere. Among the latest measure's co-sponsors are Kentucky Republican Reps. Ed Whitfield and Geoff Davis.
Paul said on his campaign Web site that the greatest threat to national security is lack of border security. There should be no amnesty for illegal immigrants and no public spending for their medical care, he said.
His opponent, Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, has advocated for tighter border security and said those here illegally must "go to the back of the line before they can become citizens."
The RT interview apparently was the first in which Paul voiced support for ending citizenship for children born to illegal immigrants.
That's an extreme view, said Rev. Patrick Delahanty, associate director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. "What's wrong with a child being born here being a citizen?" he asked.
The conference supports strong security at the border, but also visa reform to allow more immigrants to come here legally, and a way for non-felons here illegally to become citizens, Delahanty said.
The idea to end birthright citizenship goes against settled law and values, immigration advocates said.
"It's a core American belief that those who are born here get integrated into our society, no matter where your parents are from," Karen Tumlin, managing attorney for the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, told National Public Radio.
Not everyone agrees.
Whether the 14th Amendment automatically makes citizens of people born here to illegal immigrants has not been settled in court, said Dustin Carnevale, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Automatic citizenship for babies of illegal immigrants creates an incentive for people to sneak into the country, and adds to the fiscal drain on the country, Carnevale said.
Delahanty, however, said immigrants bring great financial benefit to Kentucky, providing key labor in the signature horse industry, as well as in agriculture and other fields.
It's not clear how Paul's stance will play out in the Senate race.
Conway's campaign issued a statement Friday saying that Conway is talking about how to create jobs and cut the federal deficit while "Rand Paul is speaking in sound bites to Russian television."
Paul's campaign chairman, David Adams, said he wasn't greatly concerned about how Paul's opponents portray him.
As to Paul's position on birthright citizenship, Adams said Paul has often referenced a quote by the late economist Milton Friedman about the incompatibility of a welfare state and open borders.
Some observers said Paul's position won't cost him many political points, and could help in some quarters.
"That doesn't surprise me that he would pick up support" with his comments, Delahanty said of Paul.