The G.O.P. and Birthright Citizenship

By Steven A. Camarota August 2010

NYTimes.com, August 17, 2010

Why This Issue Helps Republicans

Critics of automatic citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants are certainly correct that the stakes are high. The Center for Immigration Studies, based on an analysis of birth records, found that there are 380,000 births a year to illegal immigrant mothers ─ one out of 10 births. The Pew Hispanic Center analyzed a Census Bureau survey and estimated it was 340,000 a year, or one out of 12 births. Either way, the numbers are enormous.

Critics of automatic and universal birthright citizenship are also right to point out that awarding citizenship to these children complicates our enforcement efforts. First, the presence of these children can sometimes stop the deportation of an illegal immigrant parent on the grounds that it creates a hardship for the U.S.-citizen child. While this does not happen often, if we increased our enforcement efforts it would certainly become much more common.

Second, birthright citizenship makes enforcement more difficult politically because amnesty advocates can reasonably argument that we should not “punish” these children for something their parent did. Of course, children often suffer the consequences of their parent’s misdeeds. But the argument still has merit. Herein lies the political dilemma for both those who defend birthright citizenship and those who oppose it.

A Zogby poll found that a very large majority (74 percent) of Americans feel that illegal immigration is due to inadequate enforcement efforts. But opinion on birthright citizenship specifically, is more divided.

Almost no other industrialized democracy has such a permissive policy. Moreover, birthright citizenship is entirely the result of bureaucratic decisions, such as the State Department giving a passport to anyone who sends in a U.S. birth certificate and a photo. In effect, citizenship is also awarded when a local registrar of voting allows anyone into the voting booth who has provided a U.S. birth certificate.

No court ruling, no legislation passed by Congress, and no executive order has ever established that children born to illegal immigrants are automatically U.S. citizens. And of course, the constitutional language of 14th Amendment on which these bureaucratic decisions are made is ambiguous, especially to our modern ears.

Given the views of most of their party and a large share of the general public, the Republicans and opponents of automatic birthright citizenship will do best when they place the issue in the larger context of illegal immigration and our failure to enforce our laws.

They will also do well when they make the case that birthright citizenship amounts to bureaucratic usurpation of a decision that the American people through elected representatives should make. On the other hand, to the extent that the Democrats and supporters of automatic birthright citizenship can make the debate about innocent children they can deflect much of the criticism.

Politically, as is often the case, the issue will be adapted to local conditions. In more liberals areas of the country Republicans will talk little about the issue, and in more conservative areas Republicans, and often Democrats as well, will attack the policy.

Because the public is so fed up with illegal immigration, on balance the issue will help Republicans and hurt Democrats somewhat. The Democrats, however, have much larger political problems to overcome in the upcoming election.