When air travel resumed several months after 9/11, my Guatemalan-born nephew and a group of his classmates traveled to England as part of an exchange program.
When the young men arrived in Miami, customs officers asked passengers with U.S. passports to form one line and told those holding Central American passports to go to another.
Customs waived the U.S. citizens through with minimal delay while subjecting the rest to lengthy checks and inspections.
Preferential treatment at international airports is but one small example of American citizenship's value.
How it comes to pass that my 10 Guatemalan nephews and nieces, all born on foreign soil, are American citizens with U.S. passports is our Independence Day weekend civics lesson.
Guided by one of two principles used at birth to grant automatic American nationality, my foreign-born family qualifies under jus sanguinis (right of blood).
To meet that requirement, one parent must be an American citizen. Jus sanguinis is a relatively non-controversial practice that covers military, diplomatic and business travelers whose children are born while they are on assignment.
But the other method of automatically conferring citizenship is hotly debated.
Under jus soli, American citizenship is granted simply by virtue of being born in the United States.
When a pregnant woman happens to coincidentally be in the U.S. - say, on a vacation to Disneyland - and delivers prematurely, her child becomes an American citizen with all of its privileges and benefits.
If jus soli children were limited to the occasional incident that results from life's unforeseen events, their numbers would be inconsequential.
But American rights are so priceless that getting into the U.S. for the express purpose of having children is a goal in itself. In some cases, the fraud perpetrated is shocking.
Several years ago, the Los Angeles Times revealed that Korean travel agencies had put together special packages for pregnant women - cynically called "obstetric tourists" because they arrived on tourist visas - to come to California, have their babies and then be transferred to special Korean owned and operated post-natal facilities.
As is often the case, the Korean scam was legal but inconsistent with the spirit of American citizenship. Soon after being born, the infants return to Korea and rely on their American citizen status later in life when and if it is beneficial.
Jus soli is more commonly abused when alien women sneak into the U.S. to deliver their babies or to become pregnant. According to estimates, 500,000 such anchor babies are born annually.
Giving alien children citizenship is widely criticized as representing one of the major lures that generate more illegal immigration.
But although the debate about how to end illegal immigration often includes eliminating jus soli, little headway has been made.
Ending birthright citizenship - and by extension reducing illegal immigration - could come about in two ways:
• A favorable Supreme Court review of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that governs the birthright citizenship.
Originally intended to ensure that recently freed Civil War slaves became citizens, the Fourteenth Amendment includes this key passage: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States … "
Many legal scholars agree that aliens are clearly not "subject to the jurisdiction" of the U.S., but rather to that of their home countries. Analysts' interpretation is that the phrase's meaning is the same as "not subject to any foreign power," which, again, aliens are.
• A Congressional law that ends the decades old jus soli policy that rewards parents who have entered or stayed in the U.S. in violation of immigration laws.
H.R. 1940 (the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2007) would limit citizenship to the children of (1) U.S., citizens or nationals; (2) lawful permanent resident aliens residing in the United States; and (3) aliens performing active service in the armed forces.
Although the bill currently has more than 200 co-sponsors, Democratic Congressional leadership has prevented it from coming to a vote.
Conferring citizen status on illegal alien children is flawed and harmful to our national unity.
Since the lobby to maintain jus soli would be mostly illegal immigrants ineligible to vote, I'm surprised it still exists.
Joe Guzzardi is an instructor at the Lincoln Technical Academy. Reach him at email@example.com.