Every Republican Is Racing To Change The Constitution. This Is Why That’s A Bad Idea.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SETH WENIG
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SETH WENIG

A very strange idea is gaining currency among Republican presidential contenders: We should put a stop to the idea that people born in America are automatically U.S. citizens.

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump suggested it in his immigration policy plan, then Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) said Trump pretty much stole his idea and we should “absolutely” consider ending this practice. The idea has also gained traction with less popular presidential candidates like Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) and Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA). Even “establishment” candidate Jeb Bush didn’t exactly go out of his way to denounce the idea. And Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) was actually one of the original members of Congress who suggested Republicans try this in 2010.

But aside from the fact that revoking birthright citizenship would require difficult changes to the Constitution (or at the very least, a dramatic reinterpretation of it from the Supreme Court), it’s also terrible from a policy perspective, and would likely make America’s immigration problems dramatically worse.

Explosion Of Undocumented Immigrants

For starters, eliminating this basic American right would automatically make America’s undocumented immigrant problem much larger. Though most estimates put the current undocumented immigrant population at around 11 million, a 2010 Migration Policy Institute study estimated that eliminating citizenship for every child with at least one undocumented parent to would balloon the population to 24 million by 2050. This change would automatically change the legal status of millions of people in America.

Existing Immigration Law Is A Mess

University of Alaska political science instructor and immigration attorney Margaret Stock wrote a policy brief detailing the misguided nature of reinterpreting the 14th Amendment to exclude birthright citizenship. She pointed out that a number of U.S. citizens born in America to immigrant parents already have trouble proving their citizenship, thanks to highly confrontational deportation laws.


Should birthright citizenship be eliminated, people who would otherwise be U.S. citizens would have to turn to the complex network of immigration laws in America. But, Stock writes, “Congress has made them so complicated that figuring out whether someone is a US citizen by blood is sometimes the equivalent of figuring out whether a patent application is valid. So, if we rid ourselves of the birthright citizenship presumption, what we will be doing is replacing a simple rule for most people with one that will be tremendously complex …”

Furthermore, it’s likely to create a lot of bureaucratic mistakes. “[A]ny experienced immigration lawyer has stories of US citizen clients who have been deported — mistaken deportations of US citizens are relatively common,” Stock points out.

The Creation Of An Expensive Proof-Of-Legal-Status System

A Center for American Progress brief issued in 2010 pointed out that “Parents of Americans born abroad are required to undergo a lengthy and expensive individualized assessment of their child’s citizenship, with Department of State and Department of Homeland Security charging fees of up to $600 to cover the cost of such assessments.”

“Imagine, then, what would happen if every new parent in the United States was required to undergo a similar process — an outcome almost guaranteed by a change in the laws,” the report says. “Using the costs from the current process for overseas births, we estimate that eliminating birthright citizenship has the potential to add a birth tax of $600 per child, to say nothing of the long periods in which children would be stuck in legal limbo, further increasing the burden on new parents.”


The CAP report also estimated this would be an incredible burden on the poor, as those earning less than $25,000 are far less likely to produce passports, naturalization papers, or other forms of identification than wealthier Americans. Such an approach to immigration would likely create a permanent underclass of people who live in fear of being asked to produce papers at any time.

Buying Into ‘Anchor Baby’ Stereotypes

This Republican idea further perpetuates racist and false stereotypes about women who give birth to “anchor babies” in the United States. Research shows that 91 percent of undocumented immigrant parents who give birth to U.S. citizens have already been living in the United States for several years, suggesting it is something other than birthright citizenship that motivates migrants. Furthermore, babies born to undocumented parents make up just 8 percent of all births in this country.

Such stereotypes about “anchor babies” are unfortunate, as the U.S. has demonstrated few qualms about separating undocumented immigrants from their U.S. citizen children, resulting in the heartbreaking stories that prompted Obama to sign an executive order to delay many of these deportations so families could stay together.

It also rests on the assumption that immigrants are a draining force on America, but as Stark wrote, “[H]undreds of thousands of birthright citizens make tremendous contributions to American society every day, serving in our military, in public office.” Economic research estimates that legalization of immigrants results in $4.5 to $5.4 billion additional net tax revenue and 750,000 to 900,000 new jobs.

Less-Than-Citizens In America

Finally, and perhaps most insultingly, the 14th Amendment was established as a means of eliminating slavery in America. The elimination of such a basic right would create an expanded and permanent class of people living in America as something less than citizens. Those were dark times for America. Why return to the days before Dred Scott?