Are you a U.S. citizen? How do you know you are or are not? Oh, you say, “I was born in the U.S.” Well, all right, but it may surprise you to learn that the U.S. is one of only 35 countries that offers birthright citizenship—the vast majority of the nearly 200 countries on the planet do not do so.
So, what is controversial about birthright citizenship? Simply put, one view shared by the Republicans running for president is that birthright citizenship is a vehicle for illegal immigrants seeking entry into the U.S. Leading the pack is former President Donald Trump who has said that if elected in 2024 he will sign an executive order ending automatic citizenship for children born of parents who have illegally entered the U.S. In his view, birthright citizenship results in “anchor babies” who upon reaching the age of 21 can sponsor parents and family members for U.S. entry. Joining former President Trump are Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy who has said he will add new citizenship requirements.
Birthright citizenship is also viewed as encouraging an exploitive tourism business in which pregnant women come to the United States or U.S. territories to give birth to their children so they will become American citizens. This business has flourished especially in California but has also prospered in some U.S. territories. In the Northern Mariana Islands, for example, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific Ocean, pregnant women, especially Chinese, with ample financial means are steady customers. This situation is described as a birthing loophole because travel to Saipan, one of the largest islands in the island chain, does not require the U.S. State Department screening, because there is no visa requirement for entry.
In Southern California, multimillion-dollar birth-tourism businesses have been established. A federal probe into the industry found that some businesses charge as much as $100,000 for a birth tourism package that includes housing, nannies and shopping excursions. A story by Miriam Jordan (January 31, 2019) in the New York Times reports that 19 people have been charged in the schemes with a Grand Jury indictment handed down in the Federal District Court in Los Angeles. Chinese parents who are anxious about China’s long-term economy are among the primary customers.
Putting an end to birthright citizenship may not be so easy as Mr. Trump thinks. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “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.” This amendment was added to the Constitution in 1868 in order to clarify the citizenship status of formerly enslaved African Americans.
The amendment overturned a Supreme Court ruling in 1857 (see Dred Scott v. Sandford) that held that slaves and free African Americans were not entitled to U.S. citizenship. As Martha S. Jones notes, “any promise to transform our citizenship scheme is sure to set off a debate” (July2, 2023, The Atlantic). Indeed, it has—stand by!
Why do Republicans keep calling for the end of birthright citizenship? A Republican representative in every session of Congress from 2007 to 2021 has introduced a Birthright Citizenship Act to limit birthright citizenship (see Jones). Why? Is the answer to deal with immigration? No, according to Martha Jones. Rather, in that columnist’s opinion, it is consistent with the anti-democracy posture that Republicans have widely embraced. “Calls to undo birthright,” Jones asserts, “though couched in terms of immigration reform, ultimately aim to undo a key precept of our democracy: equitable access to citizenship.”
Is ending birthright citizenship the right thing to do? No. Citizenship is a treasured quality essential to democratic governance. Let’s not be cavalier about it. Birthright citizenship is not a “for sale” commodity. Is it? Americans of all political stripes should recognize its significance as an enduring component of American democracy.
Donald C. Menzel, Ph.D. is a past president of the American Society for Public Administration, author and international speaker on ethics reform. Before his move to Colorado, Don organized OLLI-USF’s China Special Interest Group. He also served as an OLLI-USF faculty member for over 10 years.
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