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What Happens When Countries Offer Birthright Citizenship?

Legal status seems to encourage cultural assimilation.
(Photo: Lucas/Flickr)

(Photo: Lucas/Flickr)

There are plenty of attention-grabbers in the immigration plan that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump released this week. Among his plan's most controversial proposals: eliminating the right for babies born in the United States to be considered citizens, regardless of their parents' immigration status.

Although U.S. courts have interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment as guaranteeing this right for more than 100 years, it is technically up for debate, as NPR reports. But we're not here to debate legal interpretations. Instead, we became curious about the fate of children who are conferred birthright citizenship. Does it help their host countries? And what about the kids? Does it help them?

One study presented at a 2011 conference on migration found that parents with citizen children were less likely to return to their home countries.

In order to study the fates of birthright citizens versus non-birthright citizens, researchers have turned to Germany, whose unique history provided a real world petri dish of sorts. In 2000, Germany implemented a law allowing children born of documented non-citizens to hold dual citizenship in both Germany and their parents' home countries—until they were 23, when they would have to choose only one. This situation is particularly ripe for study because it allows researchers to compare the outcomes of non-citizen-headed families with children born before and after 2000.

One study found that, compared to immigrant parents whose children weren't offered citizenship, parents of children who were provided citizenship were also more likely to speak German, read German newspapers, and have German friends. Another study found children to whom the 2000 German law applied were less likely to be obese than those to whom the law didn't apply. Parents of the citizen-children also were less likely to have more than one child, which the researchers attributed to the parents investing more resources into fewer children, whom they knew would have the rights of German citizenship. And perhaps they were influenced by their German neighbors' low fertility rates too, the researchers wrote in a white paper sponsored by the Centre for Studies in Economics and Finance in Italy. "Our findings might also be explained, at least partially, by an increase in cultural assimilation caused by the reform," the researchers wrote. More recently, a study presented at a 2011 conference on migration found that parents with citizen children were less likely to return to their home countries, yet another sign of assimilation.

It's hard to know how well these studies would apply to the U.S., whose system is much laxer than Germany's, as it guarantees birthright citizenship to children born of undocumented immigrants as well as documented ones. So perhaps this is a question for legal and moral—and not scientific—interpretation. But at least the science offers a hint that, yes, given the chance to gain legal American status, immigrant children and their parents might work harder to become culturally American too.