Is Birthright Citizenship Constitutionally Required?

Lord help me if I have to write about anything else Donald Trump says, but I do have a few thoughts on the birthright citizenship debate he’s launched. I’ll set aside the policy aspects, which have been covered in previous years in the Cato Journal, at a Cato Hill briefing, on this blog, by my colleague Alex Nowrasteh in a pithy oped, and I’m sure many other places on our website. (Alex also posted this week an extended analysis of Trump’s new position paper on immigration.) My main take-away on the policy side is that we don’t want to create a permanent state-less underclass like what exists in many countries.

Now, on the law – on the question of whether you would need a constitutional amendment to end birthright citizenship or could just do it by amending the relevant immigration statutes – the picture is actually less clear. The first thing that the Fourteenth Amendment says, before we get to privileges or immunities, due process, and equal protection, is the following: “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.” It’s that italicized “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” that’s at the heart of the debate.

Here’s the basic history: The common law at the time of the Founding gave birthright citizenship to all except slaves and Indians. The Supreme Court’s infamous ruling in Dred Scott (1857) confirmed the denial of citizenship to slaves, even if they were freed. The Fourteenth Amendment overturned Dred Scott with respect to blacks (and other non-white races), though Indians were still denied citizenship because they owed allegiance to their tribes, not to the United States. (Native Americans were granted citizenship by statute in 1924, though that allegiance/dual-loyalty paradox still clouds much of Indian law.) 

The proponents of the Fourteenth Amendment added “subject to the jurisdiction” to the Fourteenth Amendment in order to exclude from citizenship two groups beside Indians: the children of (1) foreign diplomats and (2) enemy forces engaged in hostile occupation. That understanding was affirmed by the Supreme Court in United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), when it recognized the U.S. citizenship of a man who was born in San Francisco to Chinese parents. Wong’s parents weren’t citizens, although they were legal residents. 

But what about illegal immigrants? Illegal aliens and their children are subject to our laws and can be prosecuted and convicted of violations – unlike diplomats, who enjoy certain immunities, and unlike foreign invaders, who are generally subject to the laws of war rather than domestic civil law. The illegal immigrants’ countries of origin can hardly make a “jurisidictional” claim on kids born in America (at least while they’re here). Thus, a natural reading of “subject to the jurisdiction” suggests that the children of illegals are citizens if born here.

On the other hand, the Fourteenth Amendment’s enactors probably didn’t intend birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants. At ratification in 1868, there were no illegal immigrants and no law had ever restricted immigration. “Subject to the jurisdiction” probably meant primary allegiance to the United States as a sovereign.

My sense of the constitutional question – again setting aside my policy view that more liberal immigration laws (accompanied by vigorous border control to prevent crime, terrorism, and public-health issues) would resolve much of the illegal-alien problem – is as follows.  

When the original public meaning of a legal text is unambiguous, you have to adopt that meaning unless it leads to absurd consequences. Here, the consequences may well be irrational and self-defeating: We prohibit unauthorized entry while offering an inducement, giving citizenship to the children of those who violate the law. So if Congress were to deny citizenship to children of illegal aliens, the Supreme Court might not declare that law unconstitutional. It’s a close call (read the strong arguments pro and con constitutional birthright citizenship by my friends Jim Ho and John Eastman, respectively).

Would the Court consider the consequences of a textual meaning that gives birthright citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants to be absurd?  If so, the intent or purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment’s enactors might trump the text. On the other hand, and being realistic, if Chief Justice John Roberts can find that a mandate is a tax and that a federal exchange was established by a state, there’s no way that the current Supreme Court would eliminate birthright citizenship for anyone.

So really, let’s debate some serious policy issues. It’s just not classy or luxurious to keep pressing this birthright-citizenship stuff.