Birthright citizenship in the USA

I saw that the following Washington Post article generated some consternation in another thread and thought the issue warranted its own discussion.

My read is that the following sentence is the key point/policy objective:

Congress could clarify legislatively that the children of noncitizens are not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, and thus not citizens under the 14th Amendment.

I’m curious what about this statement riles up some Americans? My views across political topics tend to be pretty mixed across party lines, but I’m unclear why this one in particular generates so much pushback (presumably from left-leaning voters). Is the concern that if this were changed, it would be the beginning of a slippery slope towards even more restrictive citizenship rules? That this simply is part of America’s DNA, and something of a sacred cow? I’m really curious about the moral/logical arguments for unrestricted birthright citizenship.

My view is sympathetic to the quote above, that we should have more conditions on citizenship for children of non-citizens. To be clear, I don’t think this sort of policy change should be applied retroactively, and if it were adopted would need a clear phase-in period. I’m not for taking away citizenship from anyone, ever.

My thinking is based mostly on Chinese deliberately coming to the US to give birth only for a US passport for their children, a service which is heavily advertised here (in China). That has little to do with a desire to be an American (freedom, liberty, etc) and everything to do with having an escape plan if China’s political situation goes pear-shaped, to increase the chance of admission to US schools, and to reduce visa issues when traveling (among other non-patriotic issues). I’m not sure why those motivations warrant citizenship.

I was curious about how widespread this policy is across countries. According to the below link it turns out the US changing this policy wouldn’t even be particularly draconian by developed country standards - only Canada is similar to the US in birthright citizenship, and apparently not as a relaxed. The concept isn’t accepted outside of the Americas, with an interesting theory about why:

One explanation may be colonialism, said John Skrentny, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego. As European countries colonized the Americas, Skrentny said, many created lenient naturalization laws in order to grow and overpower native populations.
“Getting people to move in was a good way to establish authority,” he said.

So, what are your thoughts on why this policy should or shouldn’t change?

Offering an escape plan from a despotic government sounds like a pretty good reason to offer someone citizenship to me.

Birthright citizenship is certainly rare globally, but so are lots of things about the US (not least taxing citizens regardless of residence, which mitigates to a certain extent the “risk” of the sort of behaviour you cite). And it’s about the change more than it is the actual policy. Tightening citizenship rules in the current climate would be both a terrible signal and would make what you say you don’t want - stripping people of citizenship - more likely to happen.

And yet they choose to continue to live in China, not in the US. The passport is strictly an escape plan, a convenience, not taken out of any desire to be a citizen of the US. Again, I don’t see why the US (or any country) should provide a no-questions-asked citizenship for that purpose.

What if the person is a corrupt government official, who is seeking citizenship elsewhere for children merely to hide local gains? (This has been documented in China.)

To be clear, I do think the US should be open to immigrants from such countries - who plan to primarily live in the US. The same for refugees from countries in various form of crisis, a different situation from merely living in a country with a repugnant political system. There are channels for those types of immigration already (which likely could be better than they are today), but that is a separate topic from the concept of birthright citizenship.

Edit: fair point on global taxation, although that is irrelevant for about two decades after birth…

It’s what makes USA what it is. It’s the rationale behind our great country.

Without that, well, we are just a bunch of thieving squatters, and might as well give the land back to the Native Americans.

Who cares?

The downsides versus the random unlikely scenarios like that don’t matter to us.

Well, except the racists, but they don’t really care as long as said people aren’t from Central America.

I’m not comfortable with setting policy/keeping policy strictly based on how it was done 200+ years ago (see every policy we criticize in US history…). What positive reasons are there for keeping birthright citizenship? Why would a country without that policy want to adopt it?

Because we are the nation that accepts the tires and hungry, the downtrodden. That is the United States. We are a country of immigrants seeking a better life. That was true over 200 years ago, and that is true today. If you can’t accept what America is, go live somewhere else.

Also Michael Anton, from the Flight 93 essay in Sept., 2016:

… “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.”

It’s pretty clear what his intentions are. Further, no, Congress cannot ‘clarify’ the 14th Amendment. Anton’s reading is completely wrong and entirely dependant on inserting the word “or” into the original text. [He asserts this “clarifies” the meaning.]

As for the Chinese or anyone else who practices ‘birthright tourism,’ I don’t really see an issue with it.

The question is largely moot since it would take an amendment to change it, That said, I don’t disagree that keeping policy because of history is necessarily a reason in itself to keep it, but even simply from a practical point of view, turning infants into “illegals” doesn’t sound particularly ethical. Born here, you’re a citizen. Simple, easy and makes logical sense. [His assertions that this is somehow a driver of illegal immigration is incorrect, plenty of references for why in the links associated with the op-ed, or easily googled.]

I wouldn’t much care about changing the rules about birthright citizenship as long as it was done with the proper care. (Which is highly unlikely by any Congress we’ve had in the last few decades.) I’m fine with people who actually spend significant time here getting the benefits of citizen children. Restricting the “come here for a couple months to get an American kid and then go home” industry is fine, just look out for the unintended consequences.

I’d say that’s a good reason to offer asylum. With a path to citizenship, probably, but not as the first offer.

These are very different questions. One is about maintaining the status quo, and one is about upending it. Like I say, opposition to withdrawing birthright citizenship isn’t necessarily about its merits. It’s about the fact that it’s a very dangerous thing to start removing citizenship rights, especially when you have a government so hostile to immigration that it is willing to commit crimes against humanity in pursuit of that policy.

It’s easy and don’t a bunch of stupidity? Everyone born here is a citizen. That’s it.

What negatives necessitate changing it?

They want more immigrants? Most countries are too nationalistic to do it. Americans as a whole don’t give a shit where you came from. My mother is a citizen because she was born over the border from Canada because that was closest hospital. Worked out pretty good for everyone.


Because many of the people pushing for this were the same ones looking to de-legitimize Obama because his father was Kenyan. It’s goddamn rooted in racism and fear of non-white people. It’s a goddamn slippery slope to start removing rights, and this is how it begins.

Back when the Balkans were on fire, I had a pretty good international studies professor who pointed out that the US avoids that kind of bullshit because we don’t give a shit about where you come from. You come here, and you become one of us. You get assimilated, and pretty soon your culture is abosrbed in ours, and in almost every case, your sacred ideas become a reason for us to have a holiday and party.

I’m guessing this isn’t actually true. They don’t have a choice. It might seem like having a child who is a citizen would give you the right to stay, but tell that to the parents of US citizens who are being deported for being undocumented themselves ever day.

Well, that’s not even on the table. Setting aside the big ugly issue of slavery and how it overlaps with immigration law, for most of our history you could become a resident by simply showing up and become a citizen by residing for a handful of years.

The 14th Amendment was passed because of the need to prevent southern states from denying citizenship to the children of former slaves, as those states were then doing. But it simply applied the same rule to those people as it had been to everyone else, because as a practical matter the law had treated anyone born within the United States as a citizen.

It wasn’t until 1882 that Congress began restricting immigration, and of course it did so for racist reasons, thus the Chinese Exclusion Act. Up until then, there was effectively no border at all with respect to immigration.

To prevent discrimination against the children of immigrants? To avoid having a permanent population of second-class persons? To tie immigrants to their new land, so that they stay, and contribute, and become upstanding citizens, rather than leave? As an incentive to encourage enterprising foreigners to come and settle and make their lives here? In order to be able to tax them forever, regardless of where they go?

Turning the question around to you, why do you think this? What is the problem you’re trying to solve? How big a problem is the problem? Is it worth spending time and energy solving?

I’m guessing any reasonable answer will highlight a very small problem. Given that, it stands to reason that this change in the law is being offered for reasons other than solving that problem. That probably accounts very well for the pushback.

I don’t mind this non-automatic citizenship thing, as long as:

  1. some sort of state or federal service (not necessarily military) for a year or two was required to earn citizenship (like, say, serving as interpreter in one of our foreign wars)
  2. it applied to every child, not just children of immigrants, even if their forebears came over on the Mayflower
  3. gaining citizenship would be as easy as a rich white child in Minnesota to get a driver’s license, not as difficult for a poor black woman in Alabama to get a driver’s license.

If any of those three prove to be impossible, either in theory or in practicality, then I’m a strict originalist.


From 2010, back when our favorite openly racist congressman from Iowa first adopted the idea:

This is a really interesting interpretation of the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction”. If children of illegal immigrants are not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, can they be tried in an American court? Can they even be deported? What immigration judge has the right to hear their case? It’s a Catch-22: if they’re in the country legally, they can stay, yet if they’re in the country illegally, the court has no jurisdiction over them. They can stay forever! Or does Mr King have some other understanding of “subject to the jurisdiction” in mind, one which means that illegal immigrants and their children have no constitutional rights, but can be tried, sentenced or expelled by American legal authorities based on American law?

Perhaps Mr King thinks “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States means whatever he would like it to mean, if it helps deny American citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants. More broadly, I think the point is that these kinds of nitpicking arguments about constitutional technicalities intended to deny rights to certain people are the wrong way to think about what the constitution is for. The intent of the 14th amendment is to prevent the creation of second-class citizens via legal obfuscations that pretend that some of the people in the United States are not the full kind of “person” who is entitled to the rights it guarantees. (We had some problems with that sort of thing for a century or so.) Babies brought into this world on American soil are exactly who this amendment is designed to protect.

Where’s my ‘like’ button?

Offering the escape plan is but does citizenship for any offspring have to automatically come with it? Why? Why not make the family go thru the process of becoming legal and getting citizenship? Since the kids are citizens why don’t we just make the parents citizens?

I would favor changing the law. I am not against their eventual citizenship, I just think two illegal immigrants having a kid here shouldn’t make the kid a citizen.

And before asking me why they shouldn’t get citizenship, please tell me why they should? What puts them ahead of others who are “doing it the right way”?