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Birthright citizenship is a hallmark of New World democracies

National Museum of the US Navy
Repealing birthright citizenship suggests there are certain kinds of baby more deserving of inclusion in the “American project” than others.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has released a plan to combat illegal immigration that includes ending birthright citizenship. Birthright citizenship, entitling anyone born on US soil to US citizenship, is constitutionally protected by the 14th amendment, which states, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”

At a rally in Mobile, Alabama, on Aug. 20, Trump aired his grievances with the law. “We’re the only place just about that’s stupid enough to do it,” he said. “In the case of other countries, including Mexico, they don’t do that.”

Unsurprisingly, Trump has neglected some crucial context. Article 30 (link in Spanish) of the Mexican constitution guarantees nationality to any child born on Mexican soil, legal status of the parent regardless. Mexico differentiates between nationality and citizenship (link in Spanish), however—with the latter being granted only to Mexicans of 18 years or older. Nationality still entitles Mexicans to residence within Mexico and use of public services; citizens enjoy the right to vote, hold elected office, and enlist in the Mexican army. The child of illegal immigrants residing in Mexico is guaranteed Mexican nationality, and may achieve citizenship on his or her 18th birthday.

Trump is also wrong on the number of countries offering birthright citizenship, or jus soli, worldwide. Nearly every nation in the Western Hemisphere, including Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela, offer some form of unconditional birthright citizenship to children born in-country.

A 2014 National Review article claimed, “Out of the world’s advanced countries, only two grant automatic citizenship to those born on their soil: Canada and the United States.” Although it overlooks the attractiveness of countries like Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile to a substantial number of migrants, it still makes a rather apt point. Birthright citizenship is a definitive quality of New World democracies—countries which have, for centuries, prided themselves on strong multicultural identities; and championed social, political, economic, and infrastructural foundations quite literally laid down by immigrants and their descendants.

Conservatives in the Trump camp, and those writing articles for the National Review, will undoubtedly agree that the United States is exceptional; and as such, policies enacted in “advanced” European nations do not necessitate replicate here. (Gun control, anyone?) Repealing birthright citizenship sends a powerful message: the kind of immigrant who received birthright citizenship in the past (mainly from Europe) was adding to the national equation; the kind of immigrant arriving today (mainly from Latin America) will not. This implies that individuals of certain ethnic extractions are measurably more desirable to the nation-building project than others, which, apart from being wildly racist, is inherently antithetical to US political ideals.

The US has no ethnic nationality. It is a sum of its parts, a melting pot, a tossed salad, a garden omelet—pick your preferred food metaphor. Attempts to render it otherwise are part of a long tradition of xenophobia and white supremacy stretching back to Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Dawes Act.

Additionally, opposition to birthright citizenship is often rooted in fears of the “anchor baby”—the product of pregnant mothers who come to the US to give birth, thus taking advantage of jus soli and entitling their families to permanent residence. The anchor baby phenomenon is yet another example of racialized exaggeration (despite recent claims by Trump’s top contender, former Florida governor Jeb Bush) courtesy of the collective conservative imagination. And it’s a highly confusing one, considering right-wing anxieties over falling US birthrates. Supplying the United States with a robust population and concomitant workforce was one of the practical implications of the 14th amendment to begin with; and contemporary objections to the law suggest American conservatives only want certain babies from certain families with certain surnames and skin tones to be born north of the Rio Grande.

Surprise—the basis of anti-birthright sentiment is racial prejudice. “I’m sure that’s what’s behind the emotion and the vitriol. Americans hate it when people don’t fill out the proper paperwork,” said Maggie Jordan in season one of The Newsroom, her voice dripping with sarcasm. Aaron Sorkin was right. It’s not about people gaming the system or breaking the rules. Donald Trump’s supporters aren’t applauding him for soothing their impugned sense of fairness. It’s about the mind’s eye of the nativist; the image of what a US citizen should look like, the kind of food he eats, or the language he speaks at home.

“Conservatives typically display above average, not below average, confidence in the American project and in the capacity of judicious applications of American patriotism to solve problems,” wrote Pascal Emmanuel-Gobry for The Week. If that’s the case, they should be all for birthright citizenship. It’s a hallmark of American nation-building, a stanchion against the flood of ethno-nationalism that has spelled doom for promising democracies for centuries. To strip it away is to strip away our very American-ness. Without it, we cease to be the very country Donald Trump proclaims a desire to lead.

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