Attempts to Abolish Birthright Citizenship

By Carolyn Burstein
April 30, 2015

What are lawmakers David Vitter (R-LA), Steve King (R-Iowa) and numerous co-sponsors of the “Birthright Citizenship Act” thinking of, as they try to gut the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? Both Vitter and King have previously attempted to prevent children born in the U.S. of foreign national parents from gaining automatic U.S. citizenship, but now that their party dominates both Houses of Congress, they are trying, as members of their respective judiciary committees, to finally end what they call “anchor babies” and “birth tourism.” They and other right-wing media figures use these derogatory terms, but, they are really horrified that about 4 million children of immigrants are living here “illegally,” yet possess U.S. citizenship, according to theLos Angeles Times.

King has claimed that “birth tourism … has grown substantially” (Washington Post). Yet, as the Los Angeles Times editorial clarified, believing that birthright citizenship is growing is based on a combination of anecdotes and an exaggeration of the benefits conferred on parents of a child born here. In actuality, children can only sponsor their parents for admission to the U.S. when they reach the age of 21. An undocumented parent may receive some benefits for her child, and under current law some unauthorized immigrants with U.S.-born children may qualify for relief from deportation, but it is not clear that women decide to enter the U.S. because of these potential advantages.

By using such scaremongering terms as “birth tourism” and “anchor babies,” King and Vitter may try to deflect their real intent to oppose citizenship for anyone in an undocumented family. King even said that it’s the job of Congress to decide who will be citizens of the U.S., completely ignoring that the Fourteenth Amendment unequivocally states that “all persons born or naturalized in the U.S. … are citizens of the U.S.” Do King and Vitter really think that their re-interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment will go all the way to the Supreme Court and pass muster there?

When Senator Vitter claimed that birthright citizenship was based on a misunderstanding of the Fourteenth Amendment, he disregarded over 100 years of history in which birthright citizenship has been reaffirmed by the Supreme Court, beginning with one of their decisions in 1898. In fact, the March 12 issue of Media Matters quotes the former solicitor general of Texas who, in arguments before the Supreme Court in 2011, said that birthright citizenship conferred by the Fourteenth Amendment was intended “to reverse the notorious Dred Scott v. Sanford decision denying citizenship to slaves and their children,” and that any further challenge to its legality was “wasting taxpayer funds on a losing court battle.”

While Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has also suggested abolishing birthright citizenship, he believes it is only possible to do so through a constitutional amendment. However, Vitter, King and those whom they have convinced or who believe some in the right-wing media, are of the opinion that normal legislation will suffice. The Vitter-King proposal, currently pending in Congress, states that a child born on U.S. soil would become a citizen only if at least one of his/her parents was a U.S. citizen or national, a lawful permanent resident, or an immigrant serving in the U.S. military. This definition flies in the face of the simple language and meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. Ending birthright citizenship would never survive a constitutional challenge.

We should be proud of the fact that we are a nation that confers citizenship on every child born in the U.S., regardless of race, ethnicity or ancestry. As the L.A. Times editorial board points out, this country does not confer citizenship based on bloodlines, but on equality and inclusion. No minority group should be required to win the favor of the majority to claim the privileges of U.S. citizenship. That is the marvelous principle established in the Fourteenth Amendment, “and it should not be tinkered with today in an effort to keep out unwanted immigrants.”

We at NETWORK strongly oppose any effort to abolish birthright citizenship, primarily because that means we would cease to ensure the basic human rights of people and cease to honor their human dignity. We believe in sharing power, including the full participation of everyone in society. Removing the citizenship of some people would not only be a form of terrible injustice, but it would jeopardize the rights of anyone who tried to speak truth to power. It could mean forfeiting one’s right to healthcare, education, even participation in the labor force.

Ending birthright citizenship would create a new generation of stateless children that includes the children of asylum seekers, trafficking victims, refugees and others without specific immigration status. All of this is antithetical to the moral call to respect the rights of all people, particularly the most vulnerable among us.

We echo the call of Pope Francis, who has asked leaders and legislators around the world “above all, to confront the reality of those who have been displaced by force, with effective projects and new approaches in order to protect their dignity, to improve the quality of their life and to face the challenges that are emerging from modern forms of persecution, oppression and slavery.”(Homily of Pope Francis on Migrants and Refugees: 5/24/2013)

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