Civil and Human Rights

The Progressive Case Against Birthright Citizenship

By Keli Goff


Many progressives celebrated President Obama’s recent executive action that will halt the deportation of millions living in this country illegally, but the celebration may prove short-lived. Though polls show that Americans of color are elated by the move, with 64 percent of Hispanics surveyed supporting it, the same cannot be said for white Americans. According to Gallup, 62 percent of them disapprove, along with a slim majority of all Americans (51 percent to be exact.) But the numbers that may prove even more telling as immigration moves center stage ahead of the 2016 election are these: Poll results published this summer found that more Americans favor decreasing immigration than increasing it. 


So if progressives are serious about finding a permanent solution to the immigration crisis that will generate bipartisan support, here’s a radical proposal. How about anyone who is already here illegally, who has not broken any laws, and registers by a certain date can stay, but going forward we all agree that if you are born to parents here illegally, you can’t, and neither can they. That’s right. I’m proposing that in the interest of protecting those already here illegally from the bureaucratic nightmare and moral quagmire of deportation we agree not to allow future populations to take advantage of birthright citizenship to allow entire families to sidestep our immigration laws.  


Despite the fact that American allies Ireland and New Zealand repealed birthright citizenship within the last decade, in America mere discussion of doing so is usually dismissed as some kind of laughable (or worse) extremism. That is likely to soon change.  


Earlier this year the Center for American Progress crowed about declining support for legislative efforts to repeal birthright citizenship, citing a smaller number of co-sponsors for Rep. Steve King’s (R-IA) 2013 bill in comparison to previous iterations. The language in King’s bill is similar to the language New Zealand used to amend its citizenship requirements in 2005. Under the new requirements, simply being born on U.S. soil would no longer be enough. At least one parent would have to be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. King’s bill would also make exceptions for military service.


Yet King and others are likely to find new support for such measures thanks to a surprising source: the President. Those most likely to benefit from the President’s executive action are parents here illegally whose children were born here, and are therefore American citizens. With this move the White House unintentionally bolstered a long-standing conservative argument: that there are those here illegally for whom having children is not merely an emotional choice but a tactical one. Have a kid here –what some pejoratively refer to as an “anchor baby” – and it is tougher to be deported. Thanks to President Obama we now know this to be 100 percent true. 


In recent years news outlets have documented the rise of so-called “birth tourism” here in America. One company in particular, USA Baby Care, specializes in helping natives of China and Taiwan visit the U.S. legally as tourists for the express purpose of giving birth to American citizens. Raise your hand if you believe that is what our founders and subsequent lawmakers had in mind when they were defining what it takes to be an American. If anything there is something distastefully un-American about treating citizenship like an E-bay item to be bought, traded, or negotiated for. Furthermore, if those born outside the United States are excluded from meeting the legal requirements for the presidency for national security reasons (with rare exceptions, see Sen. John McCain), doesn’t birth tourism sort of defeat the purpose?  


But the larger issue is this. America is a great country that is failing a lot of its citizens. Nearly 50 million Americans are living in poverty. Many of those are people of color who are American citizens. If one of those impoverished Americans were ordered to adopt several children, most of us would think the person requiring this was crazy. After all, how could someone struggling to take care of himself be expected to take responsibility for others? Yet that is precisely what President Obama and more specifically the immigration lobby is asking Americans to do. Take responsibility for an endless stream of people, even as our own suffer, and struggle to get policy relief from Washington. I simply don’t see how it is possible to identify as a progressive who claims to care about American poverty, but not care equally about decreasing the number of people without means coming into America. 


In an email, Elizabeth Wydra, a constitutional law expert and Chief Counsel of the Constitutional Accountability Center noted that ultimately repealing birthright citizenship would be extremely tough to do. “Birthright citizenship was written into our nation’s charter to ensure that something as fundamental as equal citizenship would not be subject to the changing whim of politics,” she wrote. And yet our country has redefined citizenship in some extraordinary ways since its inception. After all, there was a time when I, as both a woman and a descendant of African slaves, would not have been considered a full participant in our democracy. I don’t believe that changed due to a political “whim,” but because our country evolved for the better and our government and courts had enough awareness, self-reflection, and yes, bloodshed, to revisit our Constitution accordingly in the interest of bettering our country.  


I think it just might be time to do it again. 

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