There have been numerous debates about “birthright” citizenship in recent weeks. As the Heritage Foundation has pointed out, the claim that the 14th Amendment confers citizenship on the children of visitors or illegal aliens is mistaken. Neither the text nor the legislative history supports such an interpretation.

Perspective is needed. How many other countries have birthright citizenship? How many such children are there in the United States, and how much is this costing us? The Center for Immigration Studies has just released a study by Jon Feere that gives some answers. The report didn’t get the attention it should have -- perhaps because it has some very inconvenient truths.

Feere’s research found that the “overwhelmingly majority of the world’s countries do not offer automatic citizenship to everyone born within their borders.” Only 30 countries out of 194 offer automatic citizenship, CIS confirmed. Of the 31 counties listed on the International Monetary Fund’s list of advanced economies, only the United States and Canada grant automatic birthright citizenship.

No country in Europe, a continent many liberals often cite for its supposedly superior views on everything from government health care to high tax rates, grants automatic citizenship. The trend has been toward eliminating it in the few countries that grant it. Australia, Ireland, India, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom have all jettisoned this policy.

CIS estimates there are 300,000 to 400,000 children born to illegal immigrants in the U.S. each year. There were 2.3 million such children in 2003; there were four million in 2008 – and that number doesn’t include children who are older than 18 or who are married. Texas says that between 60,000 to 65,000 of the children born in Texas every year have parents who are not citizens or 16% of the total births in the state -- 542,152 from 2001 to 2009.

And the hundreds of thousands of such children are no accident. Many of them are the result of a deliberate effort by illegal aliens and foreign tourists to exploit our law and use these children to keep themselves in the country. Such children provide access to welfare benefits that would otherwise be off-limit to the parents and can “ultimately initiate chain migration of the child’s extended family and in-laws,” the CIS study notes.

Take federal welfare programs. Although illegal aliens normally are barred from accessing them, they can obtain benefits such as Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and food stamps on behalf of their U.S.-born children. Since cash welfare benefits and food stamps are fungible within a household, there is no question that welfare spending directed at the children of illegal immigrants will also benefit the parents.  It is also quite likely that a substantial portion of the medical costs of births to illegal aliens are funded through the Medicaid program.

CIS estimates that 40% of illegal alien households nationwide receive some type of welfare despite federal prohibitions. That rate is even higher in states with larger numbers of illegal aliens such as New York (49%), California (48%), and Texas (44%).

Contrast that very high rate with the fact that only 19% of households headed by a native-born citizen receive welfare benefits. CIS cites data released by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services showing that the children of illegal aliens in the county received $50 million in welfare benefits just in February 2010. So much for federal efforts to bar illegal aliens from receiving taxpayer-funded public assistance.

As for chain migration, CIS points out that when a child becomes an adult, he can “legalize his parents, and also to bring into the United States his foreign-born spouse and any foreign-born siblings. The sponsored spouse can, in turn, sponsor her own foreign-born parents and siblings, and the siblings can, in turn sponsor their own foreign–born spouses, and so on, generating a virtually never-ending and always-expanding migration chain.” This type of immigration is almost uncontrollable. It “accounts for most of the nation’s growth in immigration levels,” and it continues to grow every year “because of the ever-expanding migration chains that operate independently of any economic downturns or labor needs.”

According to CIS, America’s citizenship policy has also led to the growth of a “birth tourism” industry since the State Department is “not permitted to deny a woman a temporary visitor visa simply because she is pregnant.” This may be a relatively minor problem relative to the hundreds of thousands of children born to illegal immigrants who reside in the country. But it illustrates how some foreigners who don’t even live in the U.S. are taking advantage of this policy. The fact that it can exist at all even on a limited scale is very troubling.

The Tucson Medical Center in Arizona, for example, “actively recruits in Mexico” for expectant mothers and offers them a “birth package.” Three California Chinese-owned “baby care centers” recruit foreign mothers to give them the ability to have their babies in the United States and “take advantage” of the law according to the owners (who started the business after coming to the U.S. to have their own child). Turkish doctors and hotel owners (including the Marmara Hotel in Manhattan) have set up a birth tourism business that has “reportedly arrang[ed] the U.S. birth of 12,000 Turkish children since 2003” in order to obtain U.S. citizenship because, as one of the Turkish mothers said, “American citizenship has so many advantages.”

Birthright citizenship is not mandated by the 14th Amendment and the Supreme Court has never held that children born of individuals who are in the United States illegally are citizens -- only that the children of individuals who are born to legal permanent residents are citizens. Conferring citizenship on those whose parents are here illegally is a policy that has developed almost by default by the executive branch, with no deliberation by Congress through the normal legislative process used to decide important public policy issues.

“Americans are justifiably upset with a policy that has become standard practice without their approval,” CIS notes. Small wonder, since not only are our laws being taken advantage of by those who are seeking to evade our normal immigration rules, but the economic costs to the country and the average citizen-taxpayer are enormous.


Hans A. von Spakovsky

Hans A. von Spakovsky is a Senior Legal Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former commissioner on the Federal Election Commission.