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The Dangers of Repealing Birthright Citizenship

Repealing birthright citizenship would create a permanent underclass of marginalized less-than-citizens, writes Philippe Nassif.

Marko Garduno, derecha, tiene en brazos a Dillon Garduno, 2 1/2, en la primera audiencia para un proyecto de ley en Arizona que recusa la ciudadanía automática para los hijos de todos los inmigrantes ilegales. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)
Marko Garduno, derecha, tiene en brazos a Dillon Garduno, 2 1/2, en la primera audiencia para un proyecto de ley en Arizona que recusa la ciudadanía automática para los hijos de todos los inmigrantes ilegales. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)

People born on American soil are guaranteed automatic citizenship by a provision found in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This provision, often referred to as “birthright citizenship,” has recently come under intense attack by conservative politicians. Conservative lawmakers in state legislatures throughout the country have introduced bills aimed at blocking children born in the state to undocumented immigrants—as well as professional workers and other noncitizens with long-term visas—from claiming a right to citizenship. House Judiciary Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) has declared his intention to hold hearings on the subject.

Opportunistic politics helps explain the reasoning behind this attack on the citizenship clause of the Constitution. A broken national immigration system coupled with a slow economic recovery characterized by sluggish job growth creates an opening for certain politicians to create short-term electoral gains by demonizing immigrants. Nonetheless, numerous conservative scholars and politicians such as Linda Chavez and James Ho voice grave concerns about the political and policy ramifications of this trend.

A CAP report released this month from CAP Senior Fellow Sam Fulwood III and Director for Immigration Policy Marshall Fitz explains the cascading effect of unforeseen, unintended, and unwanted consequences a retreat on birthright citizenship would set in motion, among them:

  • “Big Brother” in every hospital delivery room, a profoundly costly and intrusive process of checking and verifying documents for every baby born in the United States
  • A new underclass of less-than-citizens who are marginalized from society and detract from our future economic competitiveness
  • Women burdened with childbearing decisions depending on citizenship parentage, endangering the newly born and their mothers in our country
  • An America that is suddenly and deeply anti-immigrant—contrary to our historical heritage and core national values and undermining our cherished democratic system, built by and for immigrants

Nevertheless, the matter is not dead in the eyes of some politicians. On January 25, 2011, Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and David Vitter (R-LA) introduced legislation to amend the Constitution and restrict citizenship to those newborns who can prove that one of their parents is a U.S. citizen, a legal immigrant, or an active member of the Armed Forces at the moment of the child’s birth.

The Center for American Progress and the American Constitution Society jointly hosted an event earlier this month featuring leading civil rights thinkers who discussed what our nation would look like should the birthright citizenship provision in the 14th Amendment be repealed, as well as its effect on all Americans.

“It’s important to look at the arguments that people are making to repeal the 14th Amendment,” said Fulwood at the event. “It goes to the core of what it means to be an American.”

Margaret Stock, a professor at the University of Alaska, noted that “The 14th Amendment [was the] crowning achievement of the Republican Party after the civil war. … it’s appalling Republicans have proposed this amendment.”

As President Barack Obama said in his speech in El Paso on May 10:

It doesn’t matter where you come from; it doesn’t matter what you look like; it doesn’t matter what faith you worship. What matters is that you believe in the ideals on which we were founded; that you believe that all of us are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights. All of us deserve our freedoms and our pursuit of happiness. In embracing America, you can become American. That is what makes this country great. That enriches all of us.

Amending the 14th Amendment to end birthright citizenship would create a very different America, one characterized by dual classes of residents born here—citizens and less-than-citizens.

Philippe Nassif is an intern with Ethnic Media at American Progress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

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