A reader from New Hampshire wrote to ask, “Why, just because you are born here, are you an American citizen? I know the history of this law but it is out of date and just encourages more illegal immigration.” Well, I cannot argue with that.
The reader, who goes by the handle Rocheleau, expressed displeasure with the practice that automatically awards all babies born on American soil a certificate of U.S. citizenship. “Just because you are born in a garage,” Rocheleau wrote, “does not make you a car.” That may be an odd analogy but I take the reader’s point.
The answer is simple. So-called “birthplace citizenship” in America is guaranteed under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The pertinent section, written in 1868, reads, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”
It’s common knowledge among illegal immigrants and foreigners holding U.S. travel visas that if their baby is born in America that child will be granted automatic citizenship. Many who have entered the country illegally also believe their child’s status gives them an advantage toward winning their own U.S. citizenship someday. For some that has already happened, but the current administration has indicated they don’t like the practice. During the presidential campaign Donald Trump made it clear he wants to do away with citizenship for newborns born to foreign nationals.
Estimates are rough, but it is widely believed that at least 300,000 babies are born here each year to parents who broke the law entering the United States. Of that group about 70% are of Latin American descent. Then, there are at least 36,000 more babies born here every year to so-called “birth tourist” mothers who are mainly from China but from other Asian countries and Russia as well. This latter group entered the U.S. with legal travel visas and hope that if the situation in their homelands become unbearable they can use their child’s status as an American citizen to come back.
An official of U.S. Immigration and Customs, asked if there is a way to circumvent this says, “There is nothing in the law that makes it illegal for pregnant women to enter the United States.”
Interesting to note: expectant mothers from Russia seem to prefer to go to Florida or New Jersey to wait out their final months of pregnancy. Moms from China often choose California or Washington State. They probably pick those destinations because in each location a whole cottage industry has cropped up – from birth hotels with nearby shopping centers catering to their culture to financial institutions staffed with employees who speak their language – making mom’s time away from home less jarring.
Like reader Rocheleau, there are many prominent politicians who would like to change this automatic citizenship system, but it’s tricky. Legislators know that in this super-charged political atmosphere whoever gets behind the idea of tinkering with the 14th Amendment runs the risk of being labeled a racist. That Amendment, like the Civil Rights Act of 1866 that came before it, was adopted to give citizenship rights to American-born slaves.
It’s important to mention that most countries do not follow the U.S. policy. No European country grants infants citizenship. Only Canada and a few African, Central and South American countries have a system similar to the United States.
Politicians in favor of doing away with automatic citizenship for babies born here are split on how to achieve their goal. Some think they can change things by simply passing legislation. Others say that would trigger an immediate and lengthy court challenge and that if one wants to change the U.S. Constitution that would require agreement of 2/3rds of the states. Again, in this hyper-tense Democrats vs. Republicans era, that seems as likely as President Trump giving up Twitter.
So, what kind of difference would it make if the 300,000+ new Americans born here each year were denied citizenship? Would that even put a dent in the impact illegal immigrants have already had on this country?
I have no definitive answers except to say I don’t want to encourage any more people to enter our country illegally. I acknowledge the contribution immigrants have made – and continue to make – to the very foundation of the United States. My ancestors came here from Ireland at the end of the last century. I get it. But unlawful entries and residencies have put an enormous strain on our taxpayer funded hospitals, schools and public welfare programs.
The time is long past for “leaders” in Washington to do what they promised to do – enact meaningful, humane reforms for our flawed immigration system. Let’s face it. These babies wouldn’t – couldn’t – be born here if we had a handle on who enters our country. Fix the big problem and the secondary baby-citizenship problem takes care of itself.