There is much to be said for the tradition of birthright citizenship in the United States. The idea that, if you are born on US soil, you are a full-fledged American citizen, with a right to that citizenship as great as that of a scion of the Mayflower, offers a beneficent narrative of assimilation: the child of immigrants is as much a citizen as anyone else. Birthright citizenship is a policy in part based on the faith of Americans in new starts. By making even the children of illegal immigrants citizens of the United States, we do not hold the sins of the father or the mother against an infant.
Part of the popularity of birthright citizenship can be attributed to sentimental mythologizing of the Ellis Island-style immigration of one hundred years ago, but part of it does draw from deep weaves in the American fabric. That faith in the new---that faith in the assimilation of the old---does seem a key tradition to the American way of life.
However, sometimes traditions fall by the wayside. The era of the independent farmer, so celebrated by many Founding Fathers and thought so central to maintaining the republic, has now passed away. And this new era, too, may see the fall of formerly sacred idols.
This season of change can in part be seen by the public commitment of increasingly prominent public officials to end birthright citizenship. Never mind that a Constitutional amendment banning birthright citizenship would have an exceedingly steep road; the fact that politicians are talking about ending birthright citizenship (rather than merely complaining about some of its effects) reveals a change in the public mood.
One does not need to be a raging nativist to acknowledge the legitimacy of some of the concerns of opponents of birthright citizenship. In the age of the advanced welfare state, being a parent to a citizen child is the entryway to a portfolio of benefits for housing, health-care, food, and income supplements. So birthright citizenship for one’s children is a significant draw for illegal immigrants.
The huge influx of illegal immigrants has also been deeply damaging to many social ideals Americans cherish: equality, respect for the law, and civic fellowship. Illegal immigration introduces a feedback loop of inequality. Major magnets for illegal immigrants are also centers of social and economic inequality, where an economic elite lords it over a burgeoning peon class.
And make no mistake about it: the number of illegal immigrants coming in has been significant. Prior to the recent downturn, a population of illegal immigrants the size of that of South Dakota came into the United States every year. A decade of that level of immigration is the equivalent to the population of New Jersey. Numbers like that have strained to the breaking point (or outright broken) the public resources of many municipalities. Schools, clinics, hospitals, and more have all borne the weight of this influx. And the damage to public agencies has been but another blow to social equality and the middle class.
It is only because of the extent of this increase that politicians or the public at large would even begin to consider ending birthright citizenship. Americans for the most part believe in the idea (and ideal) of immigration. They view some level of openness to immigration as foundational for modern America, and revel in the power of assimilation as the power of American culture. But if Americans don’t want to want change for the United States’ thinking of immigration, facts on the ground may cause them to rethink their overall ideal.
Many in the president’s circle have made much of the idea that a crisis is an opportunity. Well, the crisis of illegal immigration (one created by elites in both parties) may be an opportunity for a radical rethinking of our nation’s immigration policy and, perhaps even more radically, immigration ethos.
This is a manufactured crisis, one aided and abetted by presidential administrations from both sides of the aisle. President Obama and his predecessor, President Bush, seem to have an almost ideological opposition to enforcing immigration laws. Bush was and Obama is content to leave the border unsecured, allow employers to exploit “undocumented” labor, and, particularly in Obama’s case, attack any states or municipalities that to move against illegal immigrants and their law-breaking employers.
This negligence about and outright hostility to enforcement has not lessened the controversy over illegal immigration but has increased it. Every year that goes on would increase the number of individuals benefiting from an amnesty, and any amnesty would provide even more incentive for further illegal immigration. The bigger the number of illegal immigrants becomes, the more thoroughly the system of illegal immigration metastasizes within the American economy.
With a leadership class that seems to have more antipathy toward those who oppose illegal immigration than toward those who break this nation’s laws, many Americans have grown increasingly frustrated with the current status quo. Opponents of illegal immigration are right to note that birthright citizenship is a magnet for illegal immigrants and also complicates notions of enforcement. The constitution of the United States as an egalitarian republic of laws is probably somewhat threatened by an influx of those who are outside the law. Moving against birthright citizenship is an understandable tactic for reducing illegal immigration.
And yet and yet and yet….abolishing birthright citizenship would also lead to a whole host of problems. Particularly if the executive elite refuses to enforce immigration laws (which seems likely for at least the next few years and could easily happen in the next presidential term, as well), there is a risk of compounding the shadow population. It could be a troubling thing indeed for the United States to have within its borders a growing native-born non-citizen population.
While abolishing birthright citizenship would be a response to understandable anxieties about the decline of the middle way of American life, this abolition would also itself be a blow to some of the equalizing tendencies of American law. No longer would birth upon American soil automatically entitle one to all the rights and privileges of American citizenship. No longer would any American-born person be civically equal to any other American-born person. This is not an inconsiderable loss.
Friends of birthright citizenship need to be watchful. A near-majority of Americans (48%) want to end this institution. With the change induced by this seeming crisis, many Americans are willing to dismantle what had seemed foundational to our society. Exasperated by the willful negligence of the federal government, they are increasingly open to a revolution.
Poor administration and dishonesty have gotten the nation to this point. The current president has not really made the case for increased immigration or argued that the laws prohibiting the employment of illegal workers are wrong. Instead, he has paid lip service to the rule of law while showing hostility to those who would enforce the letter and the spirit of the law. Little more could be said for his predecessor in this regard (or for many of those in Congress). The actions and inactions of both men have escalated the problem of illegal immigration.
There is still the opportunity for a third way, sailing between two poles: the perpetual influx of an illegal laborer class, stripped of civic protections, and a sweeping dissolution of citizenship for the native-born children of illegal immigrants. Both these extremes would likely lead to the same result: a nationless people within our nation.
It is perhaps not too late for competent, good faith administration to turn the illegal immigration situation around. This third way would involve the enforcement of our immigration and labor laws. It would recognize our nation’s proud tradition of assimilation and of respect for the civic body. It would understand that governmental integrity and compassion sometimes go hand-in-hand.
Once we have made our illegal immigration problem smaller, the clamor for ending birthright citizenship would likely die down. If the American people felt confident in an enforcement regime, their own anxieties about particular illegal immigrants would be lessened. If we have a pragmatic approach to illegal immigration instead of an endless process of demonization, we could have a solution that improves the lot of both native-born Americans and immigrants.