What Would Ending Birthright Citizenship Mean for the United States?

Social science (and history) shows that repealing birthright citizenship is rarely an effective solution for an overburdened nation.
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An emotional father embraces his son for the first time in months on August 7th, 2018, in Guatemala City, Guatemala. They had been separated as part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy at the border.

An emotional father embraces his son for the first time in months on August 7th, 2018, in Guatemala City, Guatemala. They had been separated as part of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy at the border.

This week, reports surfaced that President Donald Trump would attempt to end birthright citizenship with an executive order. If the president makes good on this campaign promise, a fight over the Fourteenth Amendment—ensuring citizenship for "all persons born or naturalized in the United States"—would surely follow. "We're the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States ... with all of those benefits," Trump told Axios. "It has to end."

This claim, however, is not true: Thirty countries still grant automatic citizenship to those born within their borders, according to a report from the Center for Immigration Studies. (Moreover, despite this principle's significance in American history, the U.S. denied citizenship to the children of Native Americans, African-American slaves, and other non-white people for much of the nation's history.)

The call to abolish birthright citizenship overlooks a large body of research, drawing on social science and history, showing that repealing birthright citizenship is rarely an effective solution for an overburdened nation. In the U.S., at least, it's also not realistic: Experts say Trump would face significant legal challenges.

As one report in the American University Law Review points out, birthright citizenship often comes under fire during elections as a way for conservative politicians to "blame immigrants for a country's woes." This mid-term is no exception. As Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) echo the president in endorsing legislation to abolish this constitutional right, here's what we do know about the effects of birthright citizenship, and what it would mean to end it.

The United States Is Not the First Country to Contemplate Ending Birthright Citizenship

And it likely won't be the last: Most recently, Ireland, New Zealand, and the Dominican Republic opted for stricter citizenship requirements. Some scholars have seen this as a "harbinger" for the U.S. or as part of a larger global trend. In the U.S., ending birthright citizenship would put millions at risk for deportation. Under this change, the Migration Policy Institute predicts the nation's undocumented population, which conservative estimates put at 17 million in 2017, could swell to more than 25 million by 2050. These "stateless" individuals would lack legal protections and access to basic benefits such as health care, which studies show is routinely underutilized among undocumented populations.

Repealing Birthright Citizenship Can Disproportionately Disenfranchise Poor and Historically Marginalized People

When the Dominican Republic's constitutional court revoked birthright citizenship in 2013, a report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights accused the Dominican government of discriminating against children of Haitian descent. "The national origin and migratory status of their parents have led Dominicans of Haitian descent to encounter various forms of discrimination throughout their lives," the report says. Citizenship would have been one way to combat this.

Once it was rolled out, the change also harmed citizens with native-born parents. Former Dominican citizens were required to file to be "re-naturalized." This process was "cumbersome and placed a financial strain on an impoverished segment of the population, despite the fact that the legal process was technically free," write legal scholars Ediberto Roman and Ernesto Sargas. According to their 2017 review, citizens needed to travel to state offices, paperwork in hand, and wait for their applications to be processed. This proved particularly hard on poor Dominicans, whose parents did not have the time or documentation. "Most individuals have simply given up or are slowly trying to navigate the byzantine process, hoping for the best," the authors say. If the U.S. were to follow in the Dominican Republic's example, it too would face logistical challenges; for example, some economists argue that the change would require a new federal agency to evaluate the citizenship of every U.S.-born baby—at a hefty cost to taxpayers.

Birthright Citizenship Affects Children's Development

Birthright citizenship not only comes with political and economic benefits (and important legal rights); it also plays a significant role in children's behavioral development. A 2018 study from the Institute for Advanced Studies examined the effects of the introduction of birthright citizenship in Germany in 2000 on immigrant youth. The results were gendered, but the researchers found that boys born to immigrant parents were more likely to "cooperate" with native-born kids under the new policy, meaning they were able to overcome some of the social segregation that had hindered the previous generation. Birthright citizenship "also led to a near-closure of a substantial pre-existing educational achievement gap between them and their native peers," the study authors write. These benefits have also been found to extend to the parents of children with birthright citizenship.

This may seem like a big jump in logic, but, as the report suggests, citizenship—and all its attendant benefits—has long been recognized as one way to "level the playing field" between native-born and immigrant children. In other words, the so-called "anchor babies," whom Trump has disparaged amid racist comments toward Latino immigrants, foster unity, not discontent.

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