Is Birthright Citizenship a Good Policy?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently, we’ve been seeing a lot of republican presidential candidates come out against birthright citizenship. Trump, Walker, Jindal, Graham, Christie, Santorum, Paul, Carson, and Cruz are against it. Rubio, Fiorina, Bush, Huckabee, Kasich, Pataki, Perry, and Gilmore support it. Who has it right? Let’s investigate.

Birthright citizenship is protected by the citizenship clause from the 14th amendment to the US constitution:

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.

The 14th amendment was adopted in 1868. Its original purpose was to ensure that blacks would not be denied citizenship on racist grounds. Some on the right have argued that undocumented immigrants are not subject to US jurisdiction, but this claim contradicts legal precedent–in the 1898 United States v. Wong Kim Arkthe Supreme Court ruled that all people born in the US, even children of foreigners, are US citizens. The only exceptions are the children of foreign diplomats and occupying enemy forces. The ruling was 6-2, with one abstention.

This means that eliminating birthright citizenship would require a constitutional amendment repealing the citizenship clause. Now, this means that repealing birthright citizenship would be politically extremely difficult, but it does not necessarily mean that this would be the wrong thing to do. Indeed, I continue to see two really bad arguments about birthright citizenship:

  1. Argument from the Constitution–these people seem to believe that whatever the constitution says is what should be done, and that those who believe the constitution ought to be amended are hostile to the constitution or are in some other respect violating something sacred. These people fail to recognize that we would not even have birthright citizenship in the first place without a constitutional amendment, and that the constitution has an amendment process precisely because the founders recognized that it would sometimes need to be amended. Many of the amendments subsequently passed have been good, and many people on both sides of the political spectrum support further amendments. For instance, many democrats would like to see a constitutional amendment that would reverse the Citizens United decision. So if birthright citizenship is good, it cannot be merely because it is protected by the constitution but for some substantive independent reason.
  2. Argument from Foreign Opinion–these people argue that because many European countries do not have birthright citizenship, this is a good reason to get rid of it. Many European countries also have single payer healthcare, but this has not caused any of the conservatives who want to get rid of birthright citizenship to support that. If birthright citizenship is bad policy, it cannot be merely because other countries do not do it but for some substantive independent reason.

Incidentally, there are a number of other countries that do have birthright citizenship–it’s a very popular policy in the Americas. The countries in black support the policy, the countries in white do not:

In legal parlance, birthright citizenship is referred to as “jus soli” or “right of the soil”. What do the Europeans generally do instead? The Europeans respect “jus sanguinis” or “right of blood”. This means citizenship is generally only automatically granted to the offspring of an extant citizen or legal resident.  The difference in law between the old world and the new world reflects a few differences in history. Many states in the Americas have long been multi-ethnic, and birthright citizenship protects minority groups from being denied the benefits of citizenship by potentially xenophobic or hostile majorities. The Americas also have tended to have lower population density and consequently immigrants have played a larger role in the histories of many of these countries. By contrast, the European countries were far more culturally monolithic until only quite recently. This makes Europe generally more hostile to immigrants. By a +49 margin, most Americans believe that immigration has a positive influence on American society:

While there’s been lots of talk about immigration lately thanks to Donald Trump, most Americans don’t consider the issue to be top priority:

2016 Issue Priorities

Europeans are much less favorable to immigration:


While the Eurocrisis has taken priority lately in many European countries, immigration is a very high priority in densely populated countries where the euro has less influence, like the UK:

The Europeans have steered clear of birthright citizenship because this makes it easier for them to deport people they don’t want. They are less confident that immigration is beneficial due to a mix of population density, historical social homogeneity, and the fact that there is an awful lot of unjustified suspicion of immigrants that practice Islam and/or come from Africa and the Middle East.

Ultimately, the debate about birthright citizenship comes down to the question of whether or not we believe immigration is a good thing. To this point in our history, Americans have generally supported immigration more than the Europeans do, but if the perception of immigrants changes, Americans’ willingness to consider repealing birthright citizenship may change. This would be unfortunate, because the research we have suggests that even poor, low skill immigrants are economically quite beneficial. The average Latin American immigrant contributes a net revenue of around $19,000 to the federal government each decade, when you take into account both their tax revenue and the government services they are likely to consume:

Immigrants are also far more likely to abide by US laws than native-born citizens are:

The renewed discussion of birthright citizenship suggests that more Americans are suspicious of the benefits of immigration, perhaps because they believe that immigrants are going to consume jobs, opportunities, or resources they might otherwise receive. This is intuitively appealing, but ultimately quite mistaken. Immigrants are not merely workers, they are also consumers. This means that immigrants buy things–they contribute to aggregate economic demand. Businesses have to increase supply to meet that demand, which means that while immigrants do take jobs, they also create additional work. Imagine a society in which the population steadily shrinks. As the number of consumers decreases, the amount consumers buy also decreases. Consequently, prices fall and businesses reduce supply, resulting in job losses. Japan has this very problem today–its population is shrinking and it doesn’t have enough domestic consumption to fuel growth. So it’s important to remember that immigrants contribute not merely by expanding the labor supply, but also by contributing to domestic consumption.

Opposition to immigration can only be justified in truly overpopulated countries where there is simply no room for additional people without lowering living standards for those already settled. In theory, those circumstances are certainly possible–Europeans and Asians can have interesting debates about whether they meet those conditions because their countries are densely populated, but the United States has piles of room for additional people and need not even engage in that debate at this stage:

The US still has room to spare, even its low skill immigrants are economically productive, and they are even more law-abiding than extant citizens. So what reason would the US have to repeal birthright citizenship at this time? I cannot see any. Some republican presidential candidates are championing this policy either because they themselves are poorly informed about the positive effects of US immigration or because they are trying to pander to voters who do. In either case, it’s a sad situation. Birthright citizenship has helped integrate millions of productive people into American life. It’s not broken. Don’t fix it.