How Ending Birthright Citizenship Would Change Immigration

The 14th Amendment debate continues

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In a sign of just how much the U.S. immigration debate has changed in recent months, pundits have gone from discussing the best ways that Democrats can liberalize the immigration system to arguing about whether Republicans are right to call for ending the 14th amendment, which grants birthright citizenship to anyone born in the U.S. Now some policy wonks are debating whether ending birthright citizenship would actually improve the situation for U.S. immigrants, rather than simply make immigration more difficult, as such a repeal would be designed to do. It's an unusual argument, but here's the debate.

  • Negotiate Away Birthright Citizenship for Migrant Labor Liberalization  Libertarian blogger Will Wilkinson explains, "Ending birthright citizenship could, over the medium-to-long term, help facilitate the sensible integration of North American labor markets. ... I believe the international evidence supports the idea that ending pure jus soli softens opposition to immigration." Softening that opposition would allow a negotiation by opening the borders in other ways, such as migrant labor. He later adds, "The idea that a child qualifies for citizenship at birth only if one or both parents are legal residents would be attractive to most Americans, I reckon."
  • Open Labor Immigration, Not Citizenship  Will Wilkinson writes in The Week, "We should allow labor to move freely across borders without having to provide the full benefits of citizenship to everyone who enters. ... When Britain opened its labor markets to Polish workers in 2004, the gap in average income between the two countries was about as big as that between the United States and Mexico. But per capita GDP in Poland has improved markedly since then, hastening the day when Poland provides a robust market for British goods – and possibly British labor, too. Similarly, by 2012, Romanians and Bulgarians, who are on average poorer than Mexicans, will be able to live and work in rich countries such as France, Germany, and Britain. It’s worth noting, however, that not a single EU country has a birthright citizenship rule like that in the U.S."
  • The Wrong Target for Conservatives  National Review's John Miller writes, "Immigration reformers would be much wiser to stick to more achievable objectives, such as defending Arizona against the assaults of the Obama administration. Anything else threatens to become a replay of California’s Prop. 187–an interesting and provocative idea offered by well-meaning Americans, but doomed to fail."
  • There Are Much Better Political Compromises Out There  Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias sighs, "There are a lot of different moving pieces to the immigration debate, but it’s impossible to move any of them forward as long as such a large political bloc is basically against anything other than wall-building and deportation. What’s more, since modifying the 14th Amendment would require a constitutional amendment, it’s always going to be one of the least politically viable potential points of compromise. "
  • This Is Not a Cost-Saving or Security-Protecting Measure  Liberal blogger Timothy Lee writes, "most welfare benefits aren’t tied to citizenship. If [Wilkinson is] right that opposition to freedom of movements is primarily motivated by worries about immigrant access to government benefits, that might be an argument for further restricting immigrants efforts to government benefits. Birthright citizenship just isn’t binding constraint. ... There’s nothing symbolic about birthright citizenship. Each year, thousands of Americans are born to undocumented immigrants. Birthright citizenship guarantees that when they grow up, they’ll enjoy the same freedoms that the children of American citizens do. Ending birthright citizenship means that, instead, they’ll be forced to live underground in the country they call home. This isn’t an 'act of symbolic violence against hard-won American ideals of equality.' It’s a sacrifice of the actual freedom and equality of actual human beings who will be born on American soil over the coming decade."
  • Would Create Far Too Many Problems  Liberal blogger Amanda Marcotte writes, "In sum, asking the question, 'Do you wish to repeal the 14th amendment?' is a way of saying, 'Is your campaign angling to get the racist vote by taking potshots at the children of immigrants?' And lest any[one]  whine that this is just about the children of illegal immigrants, let me point out that without birthright citizenship, there’s a strong possibility that the children of legal immigrants would lose a whole [load] of rights as well.  One thing the birthright citizenship does is expedite the process of integrating an immigrant family into the U.S.  If that was replaced with a system where the baby also had to go through an onerous citizenship process, then that would not only be an unnecessary headache, but would likely create a bunch of stateless people."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.