Every year, four million children are born in this country and gain the right of American citizenship. But if several candidates for president and Members of Congress have their way, they would end this constitutionally guaranteed right and throw the entire system into chaos by requiring a parent's immigration or citizenship status to be verified by some new government bureaucracy prior to the issuance of a birth certificate for every single child born in this country.
And let's be clear at the outset: there is really only one group of people in this country that would be harmed by this proposal - children.
If we wish to continue to be a world leader in a global economy, we must embrace all of our nation's children - regardless of their gender, race, income, parents' immigration status, etc. These babies and toddlers are absolutely critical to America's future success, but only if we, as a society, support and invest in our children and don't cast a chunk of them into the shadows as potential stateless non-citizens.
As demographer William Frey explains in his book Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America:
. . .a growing diverse, globally connected minority population will be absolutely necessary to infuse the aging American labor force with vitality and to sustain populations in many parts of the country that are facing population declines. Rather than being feared, America's new diversity - poised to reinvigorate the country at a time when other developed nations are facing advanced aging and population loss - can be celebrated.
Consequently, there is a critically important agenda that our nation needs to be discussing with respect the lives of our children. The next generation's ability to successfully contribute to our country's future will depend on the opportunities they are given and the skills they have developed.
Fortunately, Americans understand that we need to be making investments in children in order to guarantee a bright future for the nation. In an American Viewpoint poll in December 2013, over 75 percent of voters said they found the following two statements as convincing reasons why our nation should support increased investments in children.
- "Spending on children and education now in an investment in jobs for the future by guaranteeing that our children will be prepared to compete in a global economy, develop the innovations and technologies that will power the America's economy in the future, and have the skills for the jobs of tomorrow."
- "America is a great nation because we have always investment in the future. But now, some in Congress want to cut investments in children's education, health care, and nutrition. Politicians should remember what makes this country a success and create a budget that invests in the future: our children."
And, Americans are deeply concerned about our children's future. According to a George Washington University Battleground Poll in May by the Tarrance Group and Lake Research, by a 69-25 percent margin, American voters said they do not believe the next generation will be better off economically than the current generation.
Unfortunately, rather than focusing on an agenda to improve the lives of our nation's children, to lift the 1 in 5 children in this country out of poverty, and to invest in their education, early childhood, health coverage, and safety, some politicians are pushing a political agenda built on fear that is both anti-immigrant and racially divisive. Columnist Michael Gerson describes the agenda, as personified by Donald Trump as a "War on America's Demography." As Gerson says:
. . .by leading off with the issue of immigration, by proposing to narrow the protections of the 14th Amendment, by representing undocumented Mexicans as rapists, criminals and sources of infectious disease, by pledging to construct a wall across a continent, by promising the roundup and forced deportation of 11 million people, Trump has made looking on the bright side pretty difficult.
Trump's agenda seeks to "resuscitate a century-old nativism. . . ," says Frey. "Given that the United States is undergoing a demographic diversity explosion, our workforce - our very future - is tied to people that Trump is rallying support against."
Some child advocates are hoping to avoid what is a rather nasty debate, but we must engage in that discussion because, with 1 in 4 of our nation's children living in immigrant families, punitive measures directed at immigrants will disproportionately harm children. Specifically, Trump's call for repeal of birthright citizenship - echoed in a blog by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) for The Hill - negatively harms just one group: children born in the U.S.A.
It is shocking that the nation, which just has been engaged in a very important policy debate about the benefits of the DREAM Act, is suddenly discussing the possibility of repealing the Constitution's Citizenship Clause, which states, "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."
Ending birthright citizenship would subject hundreds of thousands of children every year to potential deportation, statelessness, or force them into the shadows of society. In the words of Trump, "We're going to keep the families together, but they have to go." As for the children who have lived their whole lives in America and know no other life or country, Trump demands, "They have to go."
Reporter Alec MacGillis perfectly summed up how rapid and unfortunate for children this debate has shifted.
Explaining the ramifications of such a policy change, Garrett Epps, contributing editor for The Atlantic, says:
[Trump] proposes a policy that will by design intern innocent children who are American citizens, and remove them to countries where they have never before set foot. On this scale, we are not talking about immigration policy; we are talking (I don't have time for political correctness here) about a crime against humanity.
To justify such a radical policy change, Sen. Vitter wrongly claims that ending birthright citizenship is necessary because it is a "huge magnet for more illegal crossings" into the country.
First, as Republican Linda Chavez explains, there is no evidence to back up such a claim. In response to an almost identical argument put forth by Trump, she writes that a study of the births to undocumented mothers in 2009-2010 found that "91 percent had been in the country for at least two years, and two-thirds had arrived at least five years before giving birth."
The fact is that there is so such "magnet" because undocumented immigrant parents don't really benefit from their child's U.S. citizenship. A child cannot sponsor his or her parents for lawful immigration status until they are at least 21 years of age.
And, whether you call these children either "beautiful" or "innocent," as Vitter and Epps do, respectively, the fact is that denying these babies their constitutionally-guaranteed right to citizenship would have disastrous consequences for both them and our country in both the short- and long-term.
As attorney Margaret D. Stock wrote for the Cato Journal:
The change would create a large class of stateless children who are born and raised in the United States but who do not have strong ties to any other nation. Some will voluntarily leave the United States as children or perhaps upon reaching adulthood. Some will be deported (at taxpayer expense). Those of the group who stay in the United States will have the right to attend public school through the end of high school, but upon graduating, they won't be eligible to join the U.S. military, get jobs, run for political office, contribute to Social Security, purchase health insurance, or do a myriad of other mundane daily activities that young American citizens do - and which keeps the U.S. economy going.
And, beyond the negative economic repercussions of having large numbers of young people living in the shadows of society, Stock adds that it will be harmful to all children and families - not just the children of immigrants - who are born in the country. She explains:
Once a change to the Citizenship Clause goes into effect, newborns claiming U.S. citizenship will necessarily be required to demonstrate not just the fact of their birth in the United States, but also the citizenship and immigration status of their parents at the moment of birth - and presumably, newborns will have to demonstrate this fact to some bureaucracy that has the technical and legal capacity to determine what their parents' status was at the moment of their birth.
Stock estimates this will "cost American households about $2.4 billion per year" and that is a conservative estimate because it doesn't even include the potential costs of having to hire a lawyer to deal with the paperwork, submit the legal documents, and litigate a problematic bureaucratic interpretation. As she points out:
If proponents of changing the Fourteenth Amendment have their way, every baby born in America will now face a bureaucratic hurdle before he or she gets a birth certificate - and clearing the bureaucratic hurdle will often require expert legal services.
Not only would ending birthright citizenship hurt all Americans, it would be logistically and financially unrealistic. The costs associated with thousands of trials, administrative proceedings, and the massive bureaucracy that would have to be developed would add an entirely new layer in the government - a fact that is conveniently ignored by the supposedly small-government conservative candidates leading the charge.
This is because immigration law is incredibly complicated. As just one example, in 2013, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who is a graduate of Harvard Law School, found out from the Dallas Morning News that he was actually a dual citizen of both the United States and Canada. Sen. Cruz and his family were clueless about this fact and had to hire attorneys to help him renounce his Canadian citizenship before he could run for president in this country.
If citizenship and immigration law is complicated and uncertain even for somebody like Sen. Cruz, a former Solicitor General of Texas and law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, eliminating the bright line that birthright citizenship now provides to children would put hundreds of thousands of children at risk annually, particularly low-income and middle-class children. And, this would be "downright un-American," says Chavez.
Changing the Fourteenth Amendment's Citizenship Clause to set up a new two-tiered American caste system may get a presidential candidate some quick applause in a debate - but thoughtful conservatives and libertarians will want to take a hard look at the future social, economic, and political consequences such a rejection of America's traditional birthright principle.
As for the impact this change would have on children, the new types of bureaucracy, legal complexity, and cost would undoubtedly cause significant delays in ascertaining a child's citizenship status and result in barriers to services and real harm to a child's health, early childhood, education, housing, and safety.
Trump likes to speak to "common sense." But, if you actually care about and value the lives of children and the future of our nation, his proposal is anything but.