Birthright Citizenship Facts and Myths

Arizona is at it again.  The Copper State is making headlines yet another time with another controversial immigration issue of Grand Canyon-like proportions.  This time it’s major- the state’s legislatures are now challenging the issue of birthright citizenship.

Birthright citizenship is the idea that a child born in the United States is automatically granted U.S. citizenship, regardless of the citizenship status of the parents.  Historically, birthright citizenship has been guaranteed under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution at Section 1.

Now, over in Arizona new legislation has been proposed targeting the validity of birthright citizenship.  Arizona legislators John Kavanaugh and Russell Pearce have introduced a bill that would limit birthright citizenship only to those children born to at least one U.S. citizen or legal immigrant.  They have also proposed a compact that would require separate birth certificates for children born to illegal immigrant parents.  A vote on the bill is scheduled for sometime mid-February.

As expected, this new legislation opens up a whole ‘nother immigration issue that is sure to be debated all year.  Before you delve headlong into the debate, here are some immigration and birthright citizenship myths to consider for your information:

Myth: “Anchor babies” allow their parents to automatically become U.S. Citizens.

False.  Anchor baby is the (generally derogatory) term used to describe children of illegal immigrants who are born in the U.S. and therefore eligible for birthright citizenship.  The idea is that if a couple has a baby in the U.S., the child allows the family to “anchor” itself in the country through petitioning, etc.

But the fact is having an “anchor baby” will not prevent deportation of the parents, nor will it guarantee their citizenship.  The citizen child would not be able to file for their parents’ petition until they reach age 21.  Even then, the citizen must be at least 125% over the poverty threshold to apply, and their parents may already be facing a ban on returning to the U.S. due to their previous illegal status.

Myth: Birthright citizenship began in the U.S. as a way to grant citizenship to freed slaves

Part true, part false- yes, a closer look at the 14th Amendment may suggest that the citizenship language was intended to apply only to freed slaves and not the children of immigrants.  In fact, this is probably the hottest sub-topic in the birthright citizenship debate.  On the other hand, our trickily-worded statement above is partially false because birthright citizenship did not begin in the U.S.

The concept of birthright citizenship has been around probably for as long as there have been nations.  Birthright citizenship comes in two flavors: jus sanguinis (by blood) and jus soli (by place).  The first grants the birthright only if one or both of the parents are citizens of the country.  Switzerland and Germany are examples of countries that currently exercise jus sanguinis.

The second type, jus soli, grants citizenship based on where the child is born, regardless of the parent’s status.  This is the kind that America exercises.  To me, there is a basic reason why America chose to institute jus soli birthright citizenship rather than jus sanguinis.  From the beginning America was built on immigrant communities, and how could the first waves of Americans obtain citizenship if their parents were not citizens?  But many feel that the focus on geography is no longer applicable; hence, the current reform proposes a shift from jus soli citizenship to jus sanguinis.

Myth: Arizona has the highest percentage of illegal immigrants in the country

False- actually, Nevada has the highest proportion of illegal immigrants.  In 2010, Nevada had a percentage of 8.7%, while Arizona’s was 7.9%.  So why aren’t we hearing more about Nevada on the immigration front?  Beats me.  I suspect it’s because Nevada’s economy may be faring better than Arizona’s due to extra revenue from all the Pacquiao fights.  And Nevada might not be as dependent on illegal immigrant labor, at least not as openly, that is.

Myth: Changing the Constitution is a simple process

Probably false- It should be easy to amend an amendment, right?  I doubt it.  The 14th Amendment has become firmly rooted in our judicial system.  I’m sure that this present constitutional challenge will be met from all angles with much, much resistance.  Birthright citizenship will be defended tooth and nail if it reaches the Supreme Court (which it may due to the issue of pre-emption- citizenship is a federal issue).

And another thing- the idea of having two separate birth certificates could be very difficult to actually implement.  It would result in additional administrative costs, and would require everyone thereafter to prove that they are a citizen.  Not an easy task.

Conclusion

Personally speaking, one problem I do see with the argument against birthright citizenship is the issue of implementation.  So let’s say the movement to change the Constitution is successful.  Then what happens?  Children born to non-citizens will not be U.S. citizens.  Then what will their citizenship status be?  Will they be illegal aliens as well?  Effectively speaking, they will not be citizens of any country at all, unless they are citizens of another country based on jus sanguinis requirements.  And then what?  Will our country the institute a mass deportation of infants?

At any rate, Arizona needs to be very careful and thoughtful here.  It seems like with every move they make, other states follow suit.  The state is a literal trendsetter when it comes to immigration policies- at least 14 states are already contemplating similar birthright citizenship laws.  They may be thinking, hey, if Arizona is doing it, we can “jus” do it, too.

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