Birthright citizenship, the doctrine guaranteeing that all people born on U.S. soil are granted U.S. citizenship, has been guaranteed by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution since 1868. However, during the recent scramble for the Republican presidential nomination, the topic of birthright citizenship has become one of the major talking points among party frontrunners. Donald Trump and Sen. Rand Paul have both called for an outright rejection of the law, while former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio have acknowledged the problems the law presents while deferring to the authority of the Constitution. While the thought of voiding the 14th Amendment may seem enticing in the face of the current immigration rhetoric, ignoring birthright citizenship would have drastic consequences for equality and fairness in the United States.
The 14th Amendment was passed after the Civil War to ensure freed slaves were integrated into U.S. society as equal citizens. While the law seems straightforward in its directive, the Amendment states that the person has to be “subject to the jurisdiction” of the U.S. to gain citizenship. Modern opponents of birthright citizenship have pounced upon that phrase, claiming that it indicates children born to parents with allegiances to other countries should be denied citizenship. The Supreme Court had dismissed that interpretation in 1898 when it granted citizenship to a man born in San Francisco even though his parents were Chinese citizens. Despite this, Sen. Ted Cruz and Trump insist upon misinterpreting the 14th amendment to play to their party base.
One of the more troubling implications of this misinterpretation has to do with the equality of all American citizens regardless of what family they were born into. A nation without birthright citizenship creates a hierarchy differentiating Americans based on what citizenship their parents hold — something that seems contradictory to the values of our country. If being born on a nation’s soil isn’t one of the most important factors in determining citizenship, it’s hard to say what citizenship really means.
Though the media has been intensely covering the campaign against birthright citizenship, the debate is based on widespread misinformation. Amending the Constitution is immensely difficult — the last amendment was ratified 23 years ago — and the nation’s time and resources could be put to better use. Republican candidates have also been warning of the dangers of “anchor babies.” This claim overestimates the power that the child has in securing the citizenship of his or her parents — a child in the United States rarely reduces the parents’ chances for deportation. While terminating birthright citizenship might seem like a quick fix to Republican’s immigration problems, ignoring the 14th Amendment would likely do little to solve the problem, compromising equality in the process.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, September 28 print edition. Email Anand Balaji at [email protected]