Currently, some federal legislators are considering legislation to update our approach to citizenship which, based on the 14th amendment, provides citizenship to any person born on U.S. soil regardless of how they got here. Effectively, citizenship is given to children born here during parents’ vacation, as a result of their illegal entry, and everything in between.
The portion of the 14th amendment concerned here 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.”
Not surprisingly, the language was created in a time when specific purposes were being served. It was passed by Congress in 1866 and ratified in 1868. First, the population was still expanding westward, American was young, and population increase was valued. Second, many new immigrants were arriving and starting families and it made sense to provide citizenship to their children born here in order to provide the new generation with a firm civic tie to the young nation. Third, and most significantly, it occurred shortly after the civil war. It was believed that states would deny newly freed slaves citizenship and the rights that come with it and so this portion of the 14th amendment was developed to address that issue specifically and ensure citizenship and rights to freed slaves
Thirty countries have similar laws in effect, nearly all of which are in the Western Hemisphere. The connection here is that it tends to be “New World” nations. In other words, the law is generally a relic from our common history of being new territory with specific concerns, low population density, and a desire to expand and build developed civilizations.
Fast-forward to the present when the context surrounding the creation is no longer. There is no population of legal residents that is likely to be denied due citizenship and rights, we aren’t an expansionist nation any longer, and virtually the entire country is settled. The effect is that citizenship is handed out to those children of those here illegally or circumstantially (vacation, etc.) born on U.S. soil. The former is the primary reason this has become such a hot button issue as they find fault in the actions of some who intentionally misuse the policy in order to remain in the U.S by coming illegally and having children (often colloquially labeled “anchor babies”).
The language proposed in new legislation would provide citizenship to children born in the U.S. who have at least one citizen parent. This is on par with what most European nations, among others, are doing and it is certainly reasonable.
However, I would argue a good compromise would be to provide citizenship to children born in the U.S. to legal residents as opposed to citizens. This would eliminate handing out citizenship to those here illegally or circumstantially. Citizenship is a bond of loyalty to a particular country. It should therefore be used to provide an incentive to abide by the laws of the land and encourage loyalty and a civic bond. While providing citizenship to children born to U.S. legal residents would eliminate much of the controversy associated with abuse, it would also provide a reward for those loyal residents abiding by the law and seeking to remain in the U.S. It may also have the effect of creating broader support for a change in the current law regarding citizenship-by-birth. It may also take a little of the edge off the immigration debate, making comprehensive reform more feasible, even if the effect is slight.