Ending Birthright Citizenship Won’t Solve Our Immigration Problems

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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  • I first heard about this in a Time Magazine article. I have discussed the issue with many friends… and they are like “Oh… is unconstitutional… it will never happen.”

    What was most alarming is their sense of non urgency! Am I the only one worried about this?

  • Heard about this two days ago and was then thinking that the next challenge would be to Plyler v. Doe with housing regulations predictable also for the future. Similarly, since there is a blue list for the diplomats maybe Arizona and others will create a green list for illegals. This is scary stuff!

  • ..IMHO,what we are witnessing in the USA is the beginning stage of a fascist movement based on racism and xenophobia,whose aim is to contain,dominate,subjugate and if possible drive brown people out of this country..documented as well as undocumented..
    We can already see some of the opening gambits of this incipient fascist movement by racists and xenophobes-that is,to enact and put into effect fascistic laws such as racial profiling and now their proposed denying of birth certificates to brown babies born on US soil.
    Such moves unfortunately are gaining broad white public support nationwide..this is extremely worrisome and bad omens of difficult times up ahead for Latinos..citizens as well as undocumented..
    I applaud poster “Shirley” here for her concern and for having that rare political “6th sense” that most people do not have..
    It is true that many people including Latinos are relatively “unconcerned” or unworried about what’s going on..
    This is indicative of the tremendous obstacles that lie ahead for building an active,strong and united Latino oppositional movement to counter the forces of racist xenophobic anti-Latino hatred in the US..
    We have two terrible monsters to deal with..one is white racism and xenophobia,the other is our own people’s “apathy”,fear and ignorance..both are deleterious to Latino advancement and progress..

  • Pingback: Defending the Fourteenth Amendment - San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium()

  • This is not the first time efforts have been made to diminish the Fourteenth Amendment. This is coming up again specifically because it is an election year. But the political strategy here of divide and conquer to turn people against each other will not work. Eliminating birthright citizenship would mean everyone, not just immigrants, would have to prove their status and would require a federal bureaucracy to determine who is a citizen. No one wants that. Instead, smart comprehensive immigration reform is the solution; not divisiveness.