The GOP Keeps Mentioning Birthright Citizenship, But Do They Have Any Idea What They're Talking About?

All the GOP candidates are using birthright citizenship to score points—but don't expect them to actually follow through on their words.

Donald Trump apparently wasn’t blowing air at the first GOP debate when he said that no one was talking about immigration before he brought it up—he just may have said it too early. Not long after that, he released an official immigration policy which calls for an end to birthright citizenship, the policy that says that all children born on U.S. soil (with diplomatic exceptions) are officially U.S. citizens. 

Not everyone in the Republican field agrees, but few of them have a clear stance. Bobby Jindal declared via tweet that birthright citizenship should be eliminated for illegal immigrants specifically. Jeb! Bush doesn’t want to abolish it, though he thinks “anchor babies” are real things, but only when we’re talking about Asian-Americans (???). Scott Walker has been the most exciting to watch. He now favors not scrapping birthright citizenship—he originally sided with Trump but now claims he never really did and was just tired when he said so. 

Others are more direct. Cruz told CBS News that the law "doesn’t make sense" because it "incentivizes additional illegal immigration;" Ben Carson also said it "doesn’t make sense" to him; Marco Rubio supports it; Trump has claimed that, despite current laws and the fact that the Constitution exists, the children of illegal immigrants are not actually U.S. citizens, which is bar none the most extreme position of any of the candidates vying for the GOP presidential nomination.

Long term, thought out policies on the topic don’t play well during a presidential campaign, and they’re certainly no way to win a primary. None of the candidates poopooing one of the cornerstones of American democracy have bothered explaining how they would undo birthright citizenship, or what systems they would use in its place. But either way, it’s worth considering the consequences of such flamboyant, ominous actions that many GOP candidates are taking.

According to David Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, there isn’t any evidence that birthright citizenship actually entices people to sneak into the country. The imagery spread by critics of immigrant women hopping a fence to "drop anchor" and stay in the U.S. is based on either complete misunderstanding or deliberate misinterpretation of laws. 

Having an American citizen as a child doesn’t entitle you to any rights or privileges if you’re an undocumented immigrant. The son or daughter can’t sponsor their parent until they turn 21, and even then the parent has to leave the country again to apply for citizenship. From there, existing U.S. law bars them from returning for another ten years. 

"Immigration law is very complicated," Leopold says, explaining that it’s intentionally designed to keep people from abusing it the way conservative critics insist it’s being abused. Stats are obviously hard to come by, but he points out that in 2010 less than 2% of births in Arizona were to undocumented mothers.

"People [are] drawn here by jobs but also by a system that historically looks away," says Hiroshi Motomura, an immigration law professor at UCLA and author of Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States. "That’s the baseline tradition. When you go for quick fixes like telling people they’re not citizens, you’re not getting at root causes. You might have a few people who make different choices, but people come here to work. It’s not the only reason they come, but the fact that their children will or won’t have a certain status won’t keep them from doing what they feel they need to do to survive."

So what would happen if the U.S. dropped its birthright citizenship policy? 

"What we’re talking about is creating a caste of people living in perpetual servitude," Leopold says. "Many of these children would be born undocumented. What are we assuming—that they’re going to leave at some point? Most of these children would have no place to go since many countries will not accept children not born on their soil. You’d be creating a class of people who would never have a right to any lawful status in the United States."

Motomura echoes those concerns about a permanent underclass. "The gains from using changes in the citizenship laws to fight illegal immigration are illusory," he says. "The disastrous consequences of creating a large underclass of people—that’s something we would always regret."

The loss of birthright citizenship wouldn’t just affect the children of immigrants. Birth certificates—those things issued when a child is born here in America—are currently the primary way that any American proves their citizenship, so without that the U.S. would need a new way to verify. 

"What we would need is a national registry of citizens," says Leopold. "Ultimately what you would need is citizenship designation by the Department of Homeland Security. I would argue that they’re not going to be able to do that until there’s a national registry, which would require a national ID card which is anathema to conservatives. We’re taking about a mammoth, behemoth bureaucracy to oversee this."

While many countries use a similar system, it’s unimaginable that anyone on the political right would argue for more government intervention in literally every American’s life. This is probably the best proof that none of the GOP candidates are sincere about attacking birthright citizenship. 

Sociologist Irene Bloemraad, a professor at UC Berkeley, has been researching birthright citizenship and identity for years. She headed a study that found that naturalized U.S. citizens were much less likely to feel accepted as Americans than others who received their citizenship by birth. In interviews with over 180 U.S.-born youths, and their immigrant parents from China, Mexico and Vietnam, Bloemraad found that the parents still feel like outsiders in America despite being naturalized. 

 "'American' does have a stronger race and class connotation. When they hear, 'What does it mean to be an American?' they think of professional, white, upper-middle class people as 'true Americans.' If you ask more questions, like 'Is Barack Obama American?', then they have a more expansive version of what they think. But 'citizen' is different. People will say, 'Of course I’m a citizen.' But they don’t have that feeling of unquestionable belonging that their children born in the United States feel."

Kids’ table candidate Bobby Jindal has said that he’s "tired of the hyphenated Americans," claiming that all this emphasis on diversity is just driving a wedge between what (in his eyes, apparently) should be a culturally homogenous blob. But eliminating birthright citizenship would just cause more factions, more divisions, and more categorizations of people in America, undermining the "let’s just all be plain ole Americans" argument. In fact, when these attacks on birthright citizenship are examined, they look like little else than barely-disguised racism, playing to advocates of barely thought out xenophobia.

Maybe Trump, Cruz, Carson and Jindal haven’t considered that. Maybe they aren’t just fear-mongering and telling white people that a vote for them is the only protection from an advancing brown horde. Maybe they really think ending birthright citizenship is a practical and pragmatic solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Maybe like Walker, they’re all just really, really tired and haven’t thought about it yet.


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