Surrendering a Birthright

Steve Chapman
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Posted: Aug 23, 2015 12:01 AM
Surrendering a Birthright

Republican presidential candidates often invoke Jesus, but lately they sound more like Jehovah. The Old Testament says, "I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation." Punishing kids for their parents' sins is the idea behind proposals to revoke birthright citizenship.

Donald Trump started the discussion with an immigration plan that promised to stop letting all those born in America automatically become Americans. Ted Cruz agrees, as do Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Lindsey Graham and Bobby Jindal. Scott Walker said he did, but then hedged. Chris Christie is open to the suggestion.

Under established law, a child born here is a U.S. citizen, even if the parents are present without permission. That rule derives from the Fourteenth Amendment, which grants citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States."

So changing the rule would mean amending the Constitution. Even if that were a serious possibility, it would be a bad idea. Getting rid of it would create a raft of problems without delivering any offsetting benefits.

In the first place, it would consign many people born, raised and educated here to inferior status, forever. They could be deported to countries that many have never seen. Most would stay, because we lack the resources to find and banish them all. But they'd be blocked from full assimilation, lacking any particular reason to be loyal to the land of their birth.

This scenario is not speculation. In the 1960s, Turkish migrants were allowed to live and work in Germany, but until 1991, neither they nor their descendants were eligible for German citizenship. So they were estranged from the rest of the country.

As The New York Times reported in January, this population lived in "tightknit communities largely isolated from Germans except in the workplace. That sentiment of separation lingers to this day."

Likewise, abolishing birthright citizenship in the United States "would lead to the establishment of a permanent class of unauthorized persons," said a 2010 analysis by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI).

If two people born here but deprived of citizenship grew up and had children together, those kids would also be deprived of citizenship. The MPI study estimates that by 2050, there would be a million third-generation "foreigners" living here.

Trump deems birthright citizenship "the biggest magnet for illegal immigration," which is like saying Trump is the main reason people move to New York. Unauthorized immigrants come here in search of jobs or family reunification, not the nearest maternity ward.

Many reproduce, because that is what human beings tend to do, especially if they are young and fertile, as this group tends to be. "Anchor babies," as their offspring are pejoratively known, are the byproduct of unauthorized immigration, not the cause.

A 2011 study by the Pew Hispanic Center reported that only "9 percent of the unauthorized foreigners who had babies in 2009-2010 had arrived in the U.S. in 2008 or later." More than 60 percent arrived before 2004.

Santorum points out that most countries in the developed world don't offer such "enticements to illegal immigration." He fails to note that even without it, the nations of the European Union have millions of unauthorized immigrants. Rich countries have a way of attracting natives of poor nations, even if they try to keep them out.

Anti-immigration groups bewail "birth tourism," in which foreign women travel here near the end of their pregnancies. That practice is rare. There were just 8,583 births to foreign, non-resident mothers in 2013 -- one out of every 459 births.

Trump and others don't realize the change would have consequences for all the children whose parents didn't sneak in. Gregory Chen of the American Immigration Lawyers Association says that today, nearly everyone uses a birth certificate to prove citizenship. Under a revised rule, "you'd need a new bureaucracy to verify each and every newborn child's eligibility."

Americans would have to apply to the federal government just to assure their kids the perquisites of citizenship. If he gets his way, Trump's grandchildren may not thank him.

As policy changes go, this one stands out for a sort of perverse genius: It would tangibly benefit no one, while harming not only unauthorized immigrants and their American-born kids, but also American citizens and theirs. And for all those who can attest with pride that they were born in the U.S.A., it would offer a sour retort: So what?