Revoking Birthright Citizenship Would Be Self-Defeating

By Steve Chapman

November 1, 2018 6 min read

Donald Trump and his more ardent supporters don't like undocumented foreigners. So they have an ingenious idea: Create more of them.

That would be the result of his plan to restrict birthright citizenship by executive order. When unauthorized migrants come, they are denied a legal place in American society — but any children they have here automatically become American citizens. If Trump had his way, they, like their parents, would be consigned to unlawful status.

The number of people who would be affected is significant. In 2014, reports the Pew Research Center, unauthorized parents accounted for some 275,000 births — 7 percent of all births. If these children were denied citizenship, we would add that many new undocumented foreigners each year. If the change were applied to children previously born to parents who were here illegally, the number would jump into the millions.

To call Trump's idea half-baked is to exaggerate the time it spent in the oven. The 14th Amendment says, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States." The sole exception is for babies born to foreign diplomats, who are not "subject to the jurisdiction" of the U.S.

The Supreme Court settled the issue in 1898, in the case of a man born here to Chinese parents, who could not become citizens because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, an infamous artifact of racial animus. He left to visit China, and the U.S. government barred him from coming back, claiming he was not a citizen.

But the court ruled that having emerged from the womb in San Francisco, he was. The 14th Amendment, it declared, "has conferred no authority upon Congress to restrict the effect of birth, declared by the Constitution to constitute a sufficient and complete right to citizenship" (emphasis added).

Anti-immigrant advocates fantasize that that this policy entices foreigners to come and bear "anchor babies" who will ensure them safe haven. In fact, parents here illegally are subject to deportation regardless of whether their children have citizenship. The "anchor" is not attached to the boat.

From the alarms, you would assume pregnant women are lounging on the far bank of the Rio Grande, waiting for labor pains to begin so they can wade across to deliver. But the Pew Research Center found that in 2009, 91 percent of such births were to parents who had been in the U.S. for two years or more.

Undocumented couples bear children for the same reason other people do: They want them. Their desires and decisions would be the same even if birthright citizenship were eliminated.

Limiting it would not reduce the problems associated with unauthorized migration. If you want foreigners to speak English, adopt American customs and not undercut American workers, denying them citizenship would be supremely self-defeating.

The change would push these individuals into the shadows, deterring them from normal interaction with the rest of us and diverting many to the underground economy. It's a mistake made with Turks admitted to work in Germany. For decades, Germany barred them and their descendants from becoming citizens, impeding their assimilation.

Granting those born here automatic citizenship, by contrast, gives them every reason to become full, contributing members of society, as most children of immigrants are.

A 2013 Pew survey found the offspring of Asian and Hispanic immigrants to be "much more likely than the immigrants to speak English, to have friends and spouses outside their ethnic or racial group, to say their group gets along well with others, and to think of themselves as a 'typical American.'" Their median household income exceeded the national median.

There is also the phenomenon of "birth tourism," when wealthy people from abroad travel here purely to gain U.S. citizenship for their soon-to-arrive infants. It infuriates some Americans, but what's the downside?

If the gripe is that undocumented interlopers break immigration laws, get government assistance and remain here for good, the critics should be glad to see foreigners come on valid visas, pay their own costs and leave promptly. If we see such behavior as a problem, though, we could deny visas to pregnant women or make it a crime to come here for the purpose of giving birth.

Birth tourism may be unwelcome, but it's not a problem that justifies discarding a noble constitutional rule. The greater problem is Trump's urge to discard noble constitutional rules.

Steve Chapman blogs at Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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