Liberty and Justice: Rescinding U.S. Citizenship

By  Sara Tehrani, George Washington University

For centuries, America, more than any other nation, has beckoned immigrants in search of a brighter, safer future to come take advantage of this land of opportunity. The American model of immigrant assimilation is one of dignified achievement and pride because it reflects long-standing American traditions of the integration and inclusion of other nationalities.[1]Nevertheless, of late, anti-immigration hysteria is pervading a country once held in high regard for being fortified by the contributions of generations of immigrants, who offered this country their allegiance and their dreams. Just months after strict anti-immigration laws were passed in Arizona, proposals to boldly amend the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution are garnering alarming levels of support in the U.S. Senate. These proposals call for a repeal of birthright citizenship for the children of unauthorized immigrants—a protection previously ensured under application of the Fourteenth Amendment. The shocking legislative change has sparked immense controversy concerning its arguable effectiveness, potential discriminatory factor, and worrisome repercussions of stripping a deep-rooted constitutional entitlement from all persons born in the United States.

The Fourteenth Amendment is hailed in U.S. history as a cornerstone of American civil rights. The amendment ensures due process, grants equal protection, and provides affirmation that all persons born in this country are U.S. citizens.[2]

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.

–          Amendment XIV, Section I, Clause I [3]

This constitutional guarantee dates back to the post-Civil War era, as the Amendment was initially designed to resolve citizenship issues pertaining to former slaves and their children.[4] Since its addition in 1868, the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment has controlled the citizenship of every person born in the United States.

The current legislative measure in question is predominantly led by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is actively pushing hearings to amend the clause. Graham said, “We should change our Constitution and say if you come here illegally and you have a child, that child’s automatically not a citizen,”4. He claims the current law “attracts people [to this country] for the wrong reasons.”[5] Senator Graham insists the children granted citizenship under the Citizenship Clause assist their relatives in obtaining citizenship and other benefits. This argument is not entirely reasonable because having an “anchor baby” does not provide citizenship to the mother. It is not possible for a child to sponsor their parents for citizenship until age 21. Furthermore, even when the child is of this age, certain restrictions apply; thus, Senator Graham’s argument that mothers will easily gain citizenship is not supported in the application of the clause.[5]

The main issue Graham is pushing is that the U.S. has unauthorized immigrants crossing the border for the sole purpose of having children, although immigration data and surveys don’t support this claim at all. “All the data [from the Pew Hispanic Center] suggests that people come here to work – especially Mexicans, and especially illegal Mexicans,” said Roberto Suro, a communications and journalism professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in Hispanic issues. Suro also explained that if having a baby was a significant driving factor in illegal immigration, we would expect to see a higher percentage of women of child-bearing age in the U.S. illegally compared to men of the same age and he points out that just the opposite of this is the case.[5]

While only recently gaining momentum, the current proposal to repeal birthright citizenship is not an entirely new idea. Former California governor Pete Wilson (R-CA) proposed such a measure as a part of his immigration plan in 1993[6] and Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also introduced legislation to end automatic birthright citizenship in the same year.[7] But it is only since 2009 that prominent political leaders have seriously taken up the idea as a prospective solution to the daunting issue of illegal immigration and its depletion of national resources.

What it looks like from the outside, however, is that Republicans are hurriedly riding along the coattails of Arizona laws, as well as national anti-immigration sentiments, in an attempt they believe will save taxpayer money and slow down rampant illegal border crossings.8 But without significant evidence to support that the desperate measure of altering Constitutional law would effectively do anything to impede illegal immigration, the assault on the Fourteenth Amendment can be viewed as an exhibit of extremism. Opponents are also hesitant to overlook hostility toward immigrants as a motivation for amending the clause. Notions of prejudice, especially toward Mexican immigrants, are not inconceivable, especially since past efforts to abolish birthright citizenship have relied greatly on nationalized xenophobia. In 1942, California natives attempted to take advantage of wartime anti-Japanese public sentiment to end birthright citizenship. Greg Robinson is Associate Professor of History at the Université du Québec À Montréaland noted that their arguments revealed a fundamental motivation of white supremacy, with the ACLU and NAACP perceiving such implications.[6]

In truth, the act of abolishing the amendment does not guarantee success or benefits to anyone at all – in fact, the proposal is a bit alarming in how much damage it might produce and the chaos it could trigger. Were the amendment to pass, it would fundamentally change what it means to be an American. The citizenship status of every individual born in our country would be left in question. And what about the hundreds of thousands of children born in this country that will be undocumented; to what nation will they belong? Furthermore, is the U.S. prepared to develop a new system of classifying its people if a birth certificate will no longer be sufficient proof of citizenship? And apart from the children of unauthorized immigrants, where does that leave the rest of America? …With liberty and justice deportation papers for all.

It is apparent the U.S. immigration system in need of new direction; nevertheless, it is important to contemplate all possible solutions and consider the respective consequences of each. Our new immigration policy must complement our national security policy as well as our economic policies. Politicians see solutions through reform, but on the issue of illegal immigration, our dilemmas are comprised of several affairs – including our national debt, the health of our economy, and level of unemployment. Concerning birthright citizenship, can we not appreciate the fact that what we’ve been doing for hundreds of years has been good to our country? Maybe there is an opportunity cost, but in the end we reap the benefits as we accumulate citizens who become taxpayers, join our communities, and serve in our military. Is this exclusivity really what America stands for – that we are it and we don’t want to share this country with anyone else? This is untrue of our ancestors then, who came here, worked hard and succeeded to provide better lives for future generations. There is a Persian saying by Tusi from a story about an old man planting a walnut tree written over 700 years ago that translates to say that “Others planted and we ate, and we will plant so that others may eat.”[10] Our ancestors planted walnut trees they would never see for generations they would never meet. In a nation where it is so easy to constantly take from one another and disregard the future, it is time we consider planting more walnut trees instead of wielding our axes.


1. S, M. “Go Back Where You Didn’t Come From.” The Economist, 12 Aug 2010, http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2010/08/birthright_citizenship (accessed Sep, 2010).

2.Stock, Margaret D.. “Policy Arguments in Favor of Retaining America’s Birthright Citizenship Law.” Made in America: Myths & Facts about Birthright Citizenship Immigration Policy Center,. http://www.immigrationpolicy.org/perspectives/made-america-myths-facts-about-birthright-citizenship (accessed Sep, 2010).

3. “Constitution of the United States.” The Charters of Freedom. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_amendments_11-27.html (accessed Sep, 2010).

4.“Born in the USA: The flawed case against birthright citizenship..” Chicago Tribune, 15 Aug 2010, http://www.poten.com/NewsDetails.aspx?id=10584318 (accessed Sep, 2010).

5. “Fact-checking the claims about ‘anchor babies’ and whether illegal immigrants ‘drop and leave’.” St. Petersburg Times, 2010, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2010/aug/06/lindsey-graham/illegal-immigrants-anchor-babies-birthright/.

6. Robinson, Greg. “Repealing Birthright Citizenship Wasn’t a Good Idea Back in the Forties Either.” History News Network (2010):. http://hnn.us/articles/130165.html (accessed Sep, 2010).

7.“Birthright Citizenship in the United States: A Global Comparison.” Center of Immigration Studies (August 2010):. http://www.cis.org/birthright-citizenship (accessed Sep, 2010).

8.”Bilbray, ‘14th Amendment Needs Clarification.” San Diego Political Examiner. Congressman Brian P. Bilbray. http://bilbray.house.gov/2010/07/san-diego-political-examiner-bilbray-14th-amendment-needs-clarification.shtml (accessed Sep, 2010).

9.The Ruh of Brown Folks.” 18 Apr 2010. http://brownfolks.blogspot.com/2010/04/below-is-small-portion-from-khwaje.html (accessed Sep, 2010).

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  • AJB

    Perhaps closing the floodgates is a gift for the next generation? America’s policies in the past have been directed toward building a country. Now it seems the time is right to shift focus toward maintaing that country.

  • James

    @AJB, What’s wrong with continuing to build a country as we maintain it. What if the Native Americans had closed the “flood gates”, then where would we be today.