Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Birthright Citizenship is the Wrong Debate

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Rather than focus on crafting real solutions to our broken immigration system, legislators have started the new year again playing politics. Last week, on the first day of Congress, Representative Steve King (IA) introduced the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011 (HR 140) as legislators from Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and South Carolina also unveiled their plans to introduce local measures to create state-by-state, two-tiered citizenship categories. Nine other states also intend to introduce similar bills this year. Neither of these proposals should be part of the answer to the United States’ immigration discussions.

The King bill made it onto the list of the first 150 pieces of legislation to be introduced in the new session of the House of Representatives. What about the economy or jobs? Only four job-related bills (HR 72, HR 117, HR 132, and HR 133) were introduced before Mr. King’s bill and none have come close to gathering the 33 cosponsors that the King bill can already count on. Actually, each of these bills has zero to one cosponsor at the time of this post. Instead, 33 Members of Congress chose to focus part of their attention on a bill that would restrict citizenship to only those children with parents where one of whom is either: “a U.S. citizen or national; a lawful permanent resident alien whose residence is in the United States; or an alien performing active service in the U.S. Armed Forces.”

Supporters of restricting citizenship cite the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” in the 14th Amendment—adopted in 1868 to allow former slaves to become U.S. citizens—as the basis for their argument. The 14th Amendment reads: “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.” Restrictionists say that the children of undocumented immigrants should not be citizens since their parents, given their unauthorized status, are not subject to U.S. jurisdiction. But as many legal scholars have noted, this phrase was inserted in order to prevent automatic citizenship for diplomats’ children and for those of an invading army—a legitimate concern just over 50 years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

But constitutional arguments aside, what we’re really talking about when it comes to moving away from a jus soli (citizenship at birth) system is creating yet another underclass of people in the United States.

In 2008, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, an estimated 340,000 of the 4.3 million U.S.-born babies (8 percent of total births) had parents who were undocumented immigrants. And in total, as of 2009, 4 million U.S.-born children had parents without status. And these children could forever remain in limbo, unable to obtain citizenship in their country of birth or possibly in the land from which their parents immigrated. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that the result could be a growth in the undocumented population from 11 million to 16 million by 2050. These estimates are likely conservative as multiple generations of undocumented children would be created—all without the same opportunities as their neighbors to reach their full potential as workers or consumers.

We are a hemisphere of immigrants. Although many industrialized countries have moved away from a jus soli system that is not the case for the Americas. In fact, from Canada to Argentina—and just about everywhere in between—birthright citizenship is the norm. Twenty-nine countries across the Americas recognize birthright citizenship with the notable exceptions of a handful of Caribbean countries and Costa Rica. In Latin America, these policies came about from a desire to attract European migration. In 1869, Argentina adopted a law stipulating that all those born on its territory are Argentinean notwithstanding the nationality of their parents. Similar texts were then adopted across the hemisphere.

Now is not the time to deliberate joining Cuba and others in the hemispher that restrict citizenship for even those born on their soil. It is a tired debate—one that has fallen in and out of fashion for decades—that takes away from the ultimate necessity of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). But even with the failure of the DREAM Act in the lame-duck Congress—a bill that at one point had bipartisan support—the dream of CIR cannot be lost. Immigrants increase the U.S. GDP by about $37 billion every year and are the future of our economy and ability to continue being at the top of the global economy.

What’s needed is to put rhetoric aside. Instead, we must come to terms with how to secure our borders, move the undocumented out of the shadows and create a better functioning immigration system that provides legal avenues for entry that match the demands of our labor market.

*Jason Marczak is a contributing blogger to AmericasQuarterly.org. He is senior editor of Americas Quarterly, managing editor of AmericasQuarterly.org and director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.


Jason Marczak is deputy director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council. He previously served as senior editor of Americas Quarterly and director of policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

Tags: Immigration and migration, Immigration Reform
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