E.g., 09/20/2017
E.g., 09/20/2017

Repealing Birthright Citizenship: The Unintended Consequences

Commentary
August 2015

Repealing Birthright Citizenship: The Unintended Consequences

Jonathan Thorne

Every few years, the issue of birthright citizenship flares briefly but brightly, unleashing a wave of news articles, pronouncements by politicians and pundits, and bills to repeal the guarantee of citizenship bestowed on virtually every single baby born on U.S. soil (those born to foreign diplomats being a notable exception). Thanks to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump the re-energized debate has turned anew to the question of whether birthright citizenship, enshrined in the Constitution in 1868 with the 14th Amendment and endorsed in 1898 by the Supreme Court, would have to be repealed via constitutional amendment or could be undone by act of Congress.

Setting aside the legal and political feasibility—and indeed most legal experts are clear that repeal would require a constitutional amendment—there are deeply important, and troubling, aspects to this proposal that have received scant attention.

The reality is this: Repealing birthright citizenship would create a self-perpetuating class that would be excluded from social membership for generations. Working with researchers at Pennsylvania State University, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has found that ending birthright citizenship for U.S. babies with two unauthorized immigrant parents would increase the existing unauthorized population by 4.7 million people by 2050. Crucially, 1 million would be the children of two parents who themselves had been born in the United States. Under a scenario denying U.S. citizenship to babies with one parent who is unauthorized, our analysis finds that the unauthorized population would balloon to 24 million in 2050 from the 11 million today.

This last finding alone should give pause. Touted by its supporters as a solution to reduce illegal immigration, repeal in fact would have the completely opposite effect.

More crucially, the idea that the U.S.-born children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc. of people born in the United States would themselves inherit their forefathers’ lack of legal status would have deep implications for social cohesion and the strength of the democracy itself. This perpetuation of hereditary disadvantage based on the legal status of one’s ancestors would be unprecedented in U.S. immigration law. It also would be contrary to the American sense of fair play that has rejected visiting the sins of the parents on the children, thereby perpetuating the kind of hereditary disadvantage as practiced in many countries in Europe.

How many children in the United States today have parents who are unauthorized? By our estimate there are 5.1 million of them, with 4.1 million having U.S. citizenship at birth and another 100,000 holding a green card. The remaining 900,000 are themselves unauthorized.

Repealing birthright citizenship would double the unauthorized share of the under-18 child population from its current 2 percent by 2050 under our most conservative scenario. The hardest hit? Mexicans and Central Americans, who account for nearly three-quarters of all unauthorized immigrants. That finding should be a sobering one for both political parties, which have made pursuit of the growing Hispanic vote a priority.

But beyond issues of politics, equity, and values lies one of national self-interest. Study after study makes clear the gains to the U.S. economy and civic fabric that result from the full integration of immigrants into society—integration that is well underway by the second generation. Birthright citizenship has been crucial to this civic and social integration. Repeal would not only have the unintended effect of swelling the size of the unauthorized population, it would also represent an insurmountable barrier to this intergenerational progress that has been at the heart of the nation’s immigration story and success.

Birthright citizenship is not what drives illegal immigration. Surveys have found that people come for jobs and to better their lives. Where problems arise, such as birth tourism by foreigners who come solely to give birth and then leave, existing policy and law enforcement offer the right solution.

So why would we alter a hard-fought, 147-year-old constitutional principle that addressed one of the darkest chapters in our history and has served the country so well? We should not: there is nothing about eliminating birthright citizenship that is in the national interest.

Michael Fix is President of the Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide.