Ending birthright citizenship, politically speaking, would be nearly impossible. But if such a change was achieved, implementation wouldn’t be much easier. And in an ironic twist for big-government-hating conservatives, ending birthright citizenship would be an ideological nightmare.
Eliminating the longstanding and constitutionally enshrined practice of granting every child born on U.S. soil citizenship would create its own set of complicated and costly bureaucratic obstacles, immigration lawyers say. More than just remove an alleged “magnet” for people to immigrate here illegally, ending birthright citizenship would deeply impact the lives of all Americans.
“Everyone benefits from the fact that they just have to show their birth certificate to show that they’re an American citizen and have all the rights of an American citizen,” Bill Stock, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told TPM.
Abandoning the simplicity of birthright citizenship would mean establishing a new system that would complicate the lives of all Americans, from birth to when the time comes to apply for Social Security benefits, experts tell TPM.
“It becomes this sort of paper chase, and who is going to police this? How do you know if a child born in a U.S. hospital is a citizen or not? Are we going to have ICE agents in a maternity ward?” said David Leopold, an immigration lawyer in Cleveland and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
“It’s all lovely to say that we are only targeting people who are born to illegal parents, but what that means is that everyone has to show that their parents were not illegally present,” Stock said. “If we want to administer this fairly, there are white people who have undocumented parents. So we can’t just say that we are not going to check for people who are white, or African American or have American accents. You have to check for everybody.”
Immigration lawyers ask: If a birth certificate no longer guarantees citizenship, then what?
“In order to prove that I am an American citizen, I don’t have to just prove that I was born in Rhode Island,” Stock said. “I have to prove that when I was born in Rhode Island, both my parents were legal citizens, and to prove that they’re legal citizens, I have to prove that their parents were legal citizens. How far back are we going to make people prove?”
For the rest of their lives, U.S.-born children’s ability to participate in everything from the military to entitlement programs would depend on whether their parents could prove that they at their births were eligible to become citizens.
“This is something that would impact all American parents. It would be expensive to come up with ways for all American parents to prove that they are citizens or they are eligible for their children to become U.S. citizens,” said Laura Vazquez, an immigration legislative analyst at National Council of La Raza. “It would just ask people, in the process of delivering a baby and making sure their babies are healthy, to also have all of their proofs of citizenship to then get a birth certificate for their child.”
Implementing such a system nationally is almost unthinkable and, at the least, would add a nearly unprecedented layer of regulation and requirements. Historically, the country has left the issuance of birth certificates to state and local governments.
“What we would literally be talking about is deputizing hospitals who are dealing with birth certificate issuance as mini immigration agents,” Karen Tumlin, managing attorney of the National Immigration Law Center, told TPM. Imagine, she said, having just given birth and having to prove your citizenship.
“It is beyond just immigrant parents,” Vazquez said. “All parents in the United States would have to go for whatever this bureaucratic process would be.“
Ironically, such a system goes against the grain of many of the values — smaller government, privacy, less bureaucracy — that conservatives hold dear. It would also be pricy. The process of proving U.S. citizenship for children born overseas currently costs $600 a baby, according to a 2012 report by renowned immigration attorney Margaret Stock.
“How practically do you sustain this? The answer at some point is that everyone in the country carries a national citizenship certification, and these are the same people that scream bloody murder when I say national IDs,” Leopold said.
The children of those who cannot provide the documents to secure their citizenship would also enter some sort of legal limbo. Ending birthright citizenship assumes that children whose parents can’t prove legal status would be able to get citizenship in their parents’ home countries. But according to Tumlin, every country’s laws are different and that wouldn’t always be the case.
“Some goodly number of undocumented immigrants have fled their home country, so there’s a huge question as to [whether their children] could have citizenship in that country,” Tumlin said.
It’s conceivable that such a system would create a sizable underclass of children in the country. It is estimated that 300,000 U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants a year benefit from birthright citizenship, adding up to some 4.5 million total citizens currently in the United States. And that doesn’t include children whose parents have some other less-than-citizenship legal status that might also be shut out if birthright citizenship is eliminated.
“The birth certificate is your key and your first identity document. Without that, if we’re giving a different one, or if we’re not giving it to now this very large number of kids, what have we done? We have then created stateless children.” Tumlin said.
Aside from the immediate effects that ending birthright citizenship would have on Americans, there’s also the broader impact on the U.S. economy. A Migration Policy Institute report suggests that ending birthright citizenship would create 16 million undocumented immigrants by 2050 (as opposed to 11 million, if the policy were to remain the same) and, on the flipside, the country would lose those citizens.
“The loss of a large cohort of millions of U.S. citizens will cause a significant reduction in the U.S. tax base,” Margaret Stock wrote in her report.
Some of the GOP 2016ers currently pushing for the end of birthright citizenship (particularly those who have benefitted from the practice themselves) are gearing the change only toward the children of undocumented immigrants. But it’s more complicated than that if “anchor babies” are their real concern. The so-called “birth tourists” who come to the U.S. from China or elsewhere to have children usually have done so on legal medical visas.
“They’re coming into the United States to get medical care including to have a baby,” Bill Stock said. “Do you make it illegal to do that? So it becomes a difficult issue there.”
The Republican candidates who do oppose ending birthright citizenship for the most part do not say that ending it is a bad idea, but rather that it’s too much trouble to pass a constitutional amendment. However, even if birthright citizenship foes could wave a magic wand and change the practice, its implications would extend much further than immigration policy.
“I don’t think they’re realizing what they’re tinkering with here,” Leopold said.