Ending Birthright Citizenship Won’t Solve Our Immigration Problems

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The people who brought you SB1070 in Arizona are now preparing to challenge one of the fundamental principles of the U.S. Constitution—birthright citizenship. Birthright citizenship, or the principle of jus soli, means that any person born within the territory of the U.S is a citizen, regardless of the citizenship of one’s parents. This principle was established well before the U.S. Constitution, and was enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment. It was necessary to include the citizenship clause in the Fourteenth Amendment because the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857 had denied citizenship to the children of slaves. Following the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment righted that injustice and became the foundation for civil rights law, equal protection, and due process in the United States.

Now immigration restrictionists want to turn back the clock and implement Dred Scott II by denying birthright citizenship to the U.S.-born children of immigrants who are here illegally—or even on temporary visas.

Children have become the newest targets of anti-immigrant ire. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer stated that unauthorized immigrant parents should take their U.S. citizen children back home with them. Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA) recently made similar remarks.

There have been birthright citizenship bills introduced in Congress for many years now. However, the new restrictionist strategy is state-led; by introducing and passing birthright citizenship laws in the states, they hope to initiate a national debate and put pressure on Congress to pass its own law and the Supreme Court to overturn years of legal precedent.

In other words, some immigration restrictionists appear poised to spark ugly immigration debates in state legislatures, distracting them from other pressing economic and social concerns. They are willing to bankrupt state coffers with costly implementation and litigation. They seek to challenge fundamental principles of the U.S. Constitution and decades of legal precedent and deny birthright citizenship for the first and only time since Dred Scott. Perhaps they should also propose counting immigrants as 3/5 of a person. (Come to think of it, restrictionists want to exclude undocumented immigrants from the U.S. Census, thereby not counting them at all.)

The Immigration Policy Center recently released a fact sheet which provides basic information about birthright citizenship and the legal and moral challenges eliminating it would entail. Far from affecting only illegal immigrants, birthright citizenship impacts everyone. If simply being born in the U.S. and having a U.S. birth certificate were not proof of citizenship, Americans would have to navigate complex laws to prove their citizenship. Other than a birth certificate, most Americans do not have government documents that establish U.S. citizenship.

The bottom line is that eliminating birthright citizenship would be unconstitutional, impractical, and expensive; it would constitute an assault on the civil rights of all Americans. And it would do absolutely nothing to resolve the very real problems with the immigration system – in fact, this debate only distracts us from real solutions.

Photo by Rosie O’Beirne.

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