Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Republicans propose changing US citizenship law

American Republicans upped the anti-immigration rhetoric to a whole new level this week when the leadership proposed that the government consider striking down the 14th amendment to the constitution, which gives citizenship to anyone born on US soil. They say the amendment, which was enacted after the civil war to ensure that slaves couldn’t be denied citizenship, is being abused by illegal immigrants who cross the border just to give birth.

Given how sacred the US constitution is to American democracy, it’s a pretty bold proposal to make. It reflects how heated the rhetoric around illegal immigration has become. Amending the constitution is a hugely complicated process that requires ratification by 3/4 of the states, so it is unlikely that this is a serious proposal rather than just pre-election posturing. But they’re saying it will be part of the Republican’s agenda if they win control of the congress in November.

Many Americans reacted with predictable fury to the suggestion. After all, America’s citizenship law enshrines the ideas etched on the Statue of Liberty - that the US will take in your tired, your hungry, your huddles masses yearning to breathe free. But I wonder if Americans are aware of how very unique their citizenship laws are. There are few other countries in the world that give someone citizenship merely by the fact that they are born on their soil. The only other developed country that does this is Canada.

In Europe, the closest any country comes to awarding citizenship based on birth is in systems like that of the United Kingdom. But unlike in the US, if a baby born on British soil is to be given citizenship, one of its parents needs to be a permanent resident of the UK. There is no such clause in the US, so a baby born while foreign parents are merely on holiday in the US will be awarded American citizenship (I actually know three different people who obtained US citizenship in this way).

Elsewhere in Europe, being born on a country’s soil gives you basically no right to citizenship in that country, even if your parents have lived there 20 years. Citizenship is instead awarded based on the nationality of the parents, regardless of where the baby is born. Germany’s citizenship policy is based entirely on blood rather than residence; you can only be a German citizen if you are ethnically German (although some modifications to these policies were made in 2000). Italy has the same “bloodright” policy, hence the reason why I have Italian citizenship (through distant ancestry) even though I have never even lived in Italy. I have several friends who live in Switzerland who were born there, lived there their entire lives, but are still not Swiss citizens because their parents aren't citizens.

So switching the US from a birthright citizenship system to a bloodright system isn’t as crazy as it might sound at first. It would actually move the US to be in line with the rest of the world. Indeed, if this area of the law were contained in a civil code outside the US constitution, this would probably be a serious political discussion. But the fact that it is enshrined in the constitution means it would be virtually impossible to change. Repealing an amendment to the constitution requires a whole new amendment, which requires ratification by the congress and 3/4 of states. An amendment has been repealed only once – the 21st amendment repealed the 18th amendment, which had established the prohibition of alcohol.

So whenever you hear a US politician talking about changing the constitution, rest assured that it is usually just political posturing. Isn’t it funny though that it is almost always Republican politicians advocating for a change in the constitution. The party that calls themselves “strict constitutionalists”, the party that holds the sanctity of the second amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms above any concern for citizen safety, is also the party that is always calling for the constitution to be amended.

Whether its adding an amendment to ban gay marriage or repealing an amendment guaranteeing birthright citizenship, the constitution seems pretty malleable in Republican eyes. But don't you dare touch that second amendment, unless you want to pry their guns out of their cold, dead hands! It’s hard to ignore the hypocricy of it all when you have Senator Lindsey Graham saying this week that the 14th amendment should be repealed because 'times have changed and the way its being used today was surely not the intent of the original authors'. So, this sort of logic should apply to citizenship rights but not to guns? Surely the second amendment’s original intent was not that every man woman and child should have the right to carry machine guns to the supermarket.

Taking another look at the US bloodright citizenship law might make sense. But there doesn't seem to be any evidence that it is being abused so much, or is causing so much of a problem, that a massive effort to change the US constitution would be a proportionate response. Surely, the government has more important things to worry about than this. But don’t tell that to the strategists plotting a return to Republican majority in November.


euromarianne said...

Your analysis of the "juris solis" in Europe is more than incomplete. You selected only the countries that make your case. France, and even Germany, offer other interpretations, mixing both "juris solis" and "juris sanginis".
An excellent book on the subject is :
Nationalité et citoyenneté en Europe
Patrick Weil et Randall Hansen, La Découverte, 1999, 334 p., 195 F.

Gulf Stream Blues said...

Well though there are some countries that add an element of juris solis to their citizenship law, there is no country in Europe that will confer citizenship based solely on the fact that the person was born on that country's soil. Those that do award it (such as France and the UK) require that one of the parents be permanent residents.

USCIS Forms said...

@euromarianne thanks for sharing the URL of the book, currently reading it.