Nevada Republican congressional candidate takes aim at birthright citizenship

FILE - This May 23, 2011 file photo shows, former Nevada Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, at work on the Senate floor at the Legislature in Carson City, Nev. Lee was elected mayor to North Las Vegas in 2013. (AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)

By Casey Harrison

May 24, 2024

During an interview with a local conservative radio station, ex-North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee suggested, among other things, that undocumented immigrants should be barred from owning property.

The former mayor of North Las Vegas running to unseat Nevada US Rep. Steven Horsford suggested to a local conservative radio station last month that he favors ending birthright citizenship — the practice that guarantees US citizenship to children born here, even if their parents migrated from another country.

Republican John Lee’s comments came during an interview with KMZQ-AM radio host Kevin Wall on April 11, in which Lee said, among other things, that unauthorized immigrants should be barred from accessing government benefits or from owning property unless they are a US citizen.

“Everybody wants the [border] wall to be closed immediately — and when we close the off the wall, but then it comes to ‘then what?’” said Lee, in response to a question about which issues are resonating with voters. “I think this birthright thing, these anchor babies, is a complete crime.”

Lee continued: “I don’t think illegal immigrants should be able to own property until you’re an American citizen or you’re from some country … and you want a summer home here or something like that, you’ve ought to have, we should have no welfare for people who came here. They haven’t paid into the system, they haven’t provided any support for someone else, so I don’t think that they deserve any of the benefits of hard-working people in America.”

ARCHIVE: Former North Las Vegas mayor running for Congress as a Republican

A fact-check analysis last year from the Associated Press found there are approximately 11 million migrants living in the US without authorization. But regardless of their legal status, immigrants are subject to sales taxes, housing costs and immunization requirements for work and school.

Some immigrants also opt for state and federal paycheck withholdings, according to the AP analysis. A 2010 estimate from the Social Security Administration suggested immigrants contribute up to $12 billion more into Social Security than they take out.

Lee served as North Las Vegas Mayor from 2013-2022 and began his term as a Democrat, but announced in 2021 he was leaving the party to become a Republican. Before becoming mayor, Lee was a state assemblyman from 1996-2002 and was a state Senator from 2004-2012.

Now he’s running in Nevada’s fourth congressional district, which includes North Las Vegas and is also one of the state’s most diverse districts. Data collected in 2022 from the US Census Bureau shows the total population of the district was 821,679 with 544,408 (66.3%) reporting their race as something other than white. That includes approximately 294,737 who reported themselves as Hispanic or Latino.

The Lee campaign did not respond to requests from The Nevadan to clarify why ending the practice of birthright citizenship would benefit his district.

‘One of the core tenants of family safety and prosperity’

Lee’s comments were surprising to many, especially because of the district’s demographics and the work he did in Latin communities while serving as North Las Vegas Mayor, said Leo Murrieta, executive director of Make The Road Nevada, a non-profit that advocates for immigrant causes.

“What’s interesting, and pretty foolish, is to hear a Republican trying to push the message against birthright citizenship because across the board for Latino voters, this is toxic,” Murrieta told The Nevadan. “You’re coming after one of the core tenants of family safety and prosperity.”

The Migration Policy institute found there are at least 224,000 children in Nevada who have at least one immigrant parent, which represents 34.3% of all Nevada children.The nonpartisan think tank estimates roughly 601,000 residents were born outside the US, with more than half that figure hailing from Latin America. In the district Lee is running, approximately 145,000 individuals reported they were foreign-born.

Murrieta notes beyond North Las Vegas, that congressional district includes vast rural swaths upstate, and that if posed as an overreach from the federal government, constituents in more conservative parts of the district could see the birthright issue as a nonstarter.

“You don’t want the government literally poking at your birth certificate,” Murrieta said. “This is just another wave of anti-immigrant, anti-people-of-color type of rhetoric that does nothing but animate people of color, whether they are Republicans, Independents, Democrat. This is a surefire way to galvanize them against his campaign.”

Is birthright citizenship in jeopardy?

Throughout the 2024 campaign cycle, former President Donald Trump has also vowed to end birthright citizenship if elected to a second term. But many legal scholars say the only realistic way to make that happen would be by repealing the 14th Amendment — which states “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”

Stewart Chang, an immigration law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said if Trump did seek to end birthright citizenship, it would come from a total or partial repeal of the 14th Amendment, which would require a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers of Congress as well as approval from three-fourths of the states.

With the nation evenly split, such a maneuver would be nearly impossible, Chang told The Nevadan in an email.

There is nothing that could realistically threaten jus soli birthright citizenship,” Chang wrote.

Lee also levied an accusation that doctors in Las Vegas are advertising in China to “have your babies [here] so that they have that anchor baby situation that takes place.”

And while federal officials over the last decade have conducted sting operations at sites in California taking aim at so-called birth tourism, most migrant parents who come to the US and have a child aren’t able to use that child as a sponsor for their own citizenship until that child turns 21.

Polling in the primary race to challenge Horsford has been scant, but Lee is the only Republican running for House in Southern Nevada to earn the backing of GOP Gov. Joe Lombardo. As of the most recent reporting deadline for campaign financial disclosures, Lee has raised aout $737,000, with $640,000 in cash on hand — narrowly trailing retired Air Force Lt. Col. David Flippo, who reported having raised about $871,000, with roughly $292,000 in cash.

  • Casey Harrison

    Casey Harrison is political correspondent for The Nevadan. Previously, he covered politics and the Oakland Athletics' relocation to Southern Nevada for the Las Vegas Sun, and before that, was a digital producer at The Detroit News. Casey graduated from Michigan State University in 2019.

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