A significant portion of the GOP presidential field wants to end birthright citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants, either by amending the Constitution or by denying altogether that it confers that right. One of their central arguments is that other countries don't give everyone who is born there automatic citizenship -- so why should we?
"We're the only place just about that's stupid enough to do it," businessman and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump said last week.
Other countries do have birthright citizenship, although most do not. While the U.S. confers citizenship based on jus solis, or “right of the soil,” many others base it on jus sanguinis, or “right of blood.” But that doesn't mean the U.S. needs to follow their example.
Supporters of birthright citizenship say there are a number of reasons it should be maintained. It's part of the Constitution. Attempts to restrict it have historically been motivated by racist fears of immigrants and their children. Ending it would be a bureaucratic nightmare. The most extreme consequence would be a massive group of stateless people -- neither citizens in the U.S. nor in foreign countries.
It's true that many other countries don't have birthright citizenship. But those countries have problems of their own.
Germany’s stringent citizenship laws created a vast underclass of second- and third-generation Turkish migrants, who still struggle today for equal opportunities and protection from racism.
Germany invited hundreds of thousands of foreigners into the country as part of its guest worker program in the 1960s, including an estimated 750,000 people from Turkey. It was meant to be a temporary measure to address labor shortages, and the workers did not receive German citizenship. But around half of the Turkish workers stayed and had children and grandchildren in the country. Today, around 2.5 million of Germany’s population of 82 million have Turkish heritage.
The lack of birthright citizenship left some deep-rooted problems. Germany was initially slow to integrate its Turkish workers, never expecting them to stay. Second-generation students are more likely to go to worse schools, and foreign-born workers have lower median incomes. German Turks fear mounting racism and Islamophobia as the far-right movement PEGIDA, or the Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, has increased in prominence in some German cities.
In recent years, Germany has relaxed some of its barriers to citizenship. In 2000, Germany began allowing children born in the country to become citizens if one of their parents has stayed in the country legally for eight years. In 2014, Germany removed another obstacle for second-generation migrants by lifting a ban on dual citizenship for people from non-EU countries, as long as they had spent eight years in the country.
Traditionally, most people born in the Dominican Republic have claimed citizenship in that country. But as tensions rose following widespread migration from neighboring Haiti, the Dominican government eliminated birthright citizenship with a series of legal changes dating back to 2004. The new standard is enshrined in the 2010 Constitution, and a 2013 decision by the country’s Constitutional Court obliged the government to apply the standard retroactively.
The changes prompted a flood of international criticism and the creation of a stateless population estimated by some human rights groups to be as high as 200,000 people -- including 60,000 children. The vast majority of these people are of Haitian descent and black, fueling suspicions that racism played a role in prompting the changes.
Without proper citizenship documents, many children can't attend public high schools, and adults have trouble working in the formal economy. Some people who have worked in the country for decades -- oftentimes in some of the most onerous jobs available, like cutting sugar cane or working as a home servant -- now face the risk of deportation, separation from their families and the forfeiture of their pensions. The Dominican government implemented a national “regularization plan” to help undocumented immigrants and Dominican-born people of Haitian descent normalize their status, but international human rights groups have widely criticized its effectiveness.
Hundreds of thousands of Koreans have lived for decades without citizenship rights in Japan because of the country’s strict nationality laws.
Following Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, an estimated 2 million Koreans moved to the island nation, seeking economic opportunities and due to forced conscription during World War II. After the war ended in 1945, around 600,000 Koreans remained in Japan out of both choice and economic necessity. Japan revoked their citizenship, and the Koreans became known as the “Zainichi,” Japanese for “residing in Japan.” They lost their voting rights, faced mandatory fingerprinting and were barred from most jobs.
The Korean community never had much chance to integrate. Because Japan’s nationality laws are based on parentage rather than place of birth, their children faced the same patterns of exclusion. Very few Koreans tried to naturalize as Japanese citizens, which would have required them to take on Japanese names and renounce their right to South Korean citizenship. Zainichi Koreans fought long battles to gain access to Japan’s national health insurance and state pensions. Korean language schools are underfunded, and until the late 1990s their pupils could not take the university entrance exam. Koreans also faced widespread discrimination, causing some to hide their Korean heritage for decades.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Japan gave Zainichi Koreans permanent resident status and rolled back some of the discriminatory measures -- opening up some jobs, recognizing Korean schools and allowing Koreans who want to become citizens to keep their names. Increasing numbers of Koreans are becoming Japanese citizens, although over 565,000 registered Korean residents remain non-citizens, according to official figures from 2010. Many Koreans still face discrimination in jobs and housing, and are concerned by the rise of far-right anti-Korean groups.
More than 100,000 people living in Kuwait are denied citizenship, even if they were born in the country and even if their mothers are Kuwaiti citizens. The country's problem dates back to its independence in 1961. At that time, some residents were either unable or failed to register with the government because they didn't know they needed to, lacked documentation or had another issue. The country also only allows fathers to pass on citizenship, so even if someone was born in the country and their mother is a citizen, they are not eligible unless their father is as well.
The government claims that most people in the Bidoon group, so-named because they are without nationality, are foreign nationals who want to claim citizenship to receive government benefits. In reality, most of the Bidoon are stateless.
The government began to call the Bidoon "illegal residents" in the 1980s and put limits on their ability to work or receive benefits. Bidoon have been denied certificates for births, marriages and deaths, along with the education and health care benefits afforded to Kuwaiti citizens. Their access to benefits remained poor even after the government broadened citizenship eligibility amid civil unrest in 2011.
Last year, the government came up with a potential solution that would help Bidoon people register for citizenship -- just not in Kuwait. Instead, the country set up a deal with Comoros, which would offer passports to Bidoon in exchange for money from the Kuwaiti government. The plan comes with a major catch for the Bidoon, perhaps considered a benefit to the Kuwaiti government. Officials say they have no plans to deport all of the Bidoon people, but giving them citizenship elsewhere would make doing so much easier.