What Americans Think about Birthright Citizenship

Last week I appeared on Hill.TV’s What America’s Thinking with Jamal Simmons to discuss what the public thinks about birthright citizenship. President Trump has proposed using an executive order to curtail birthright citizenship, which confers automatic citizenship on children born in the United States regardless of their parents’ nationality. Constitutional legal scholars say the president doesn’t have the authority to do this. What do Americans think about the value of birthright citizenship?

The Hill partnered with HarrisX to conduct a nationally representative survey of 1,000 registered voters November 2-3 to find out. First, the survey asked about a child born to a mother legally residing in the United States on a temporary visa: 57% said the child should be considered a U.S. citizen, 28% said the child should not be given citizenship, and 15% aren’t sure. 

What about children born to mothers residing in the United States illegally? Even still, a plurality (48%) support birthright citizenship for children born to mothers living in the U.S. illegally while 38% oppose and 14% aren’t sure. It would be interesting to see what Americans would think about children born to mothers who have a Green Card, but are not yet full citizens of the U.S.

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Republicans’ opinions on birthright citizenship are far more impacted by the mother’s legal status than Democrats’ opinions. Sixty-two percent (62%) of Republicans oppose birthright citizenship for children born to mothers in the country illegally; however, opposition declines by 20 points to 45% opposed if the child is born to a mother in the U.S. on a temporary visa. Conversely, 18% of Democrats oppose if the mother is in the country illegally and 14% oppose if the mother has permission to be in the country. Thus, when thinking about birthright citizenship, Republicans tend to care more about the legal status of the parents than Democrats do. 

These results are consistent with a Pew Research Center poll that finds 57% of Americans oppose “changing the Constitution” such that children of illegal immigrants born the U.S. would not longer be considered citizens. 

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On the program, I explained that birthright citizenship has become core to America identity and something that bolsters American exceptionalism.

Many argue that birthright citizenship is a major reason the United States has been so tremendous at assimilating immigrants from many different places. Since the country’s founding, America has successfully absorbed waves of German, Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants, among many others. Today the U.S. continues to do so with new immigrants coming from Central and South America, East and Southeastern Asia, and Africa.

Further, birthright citizenship has distinguished the U.S. from many European counterparts who have not assimilated immigrants as well into their societies. Many European countries have primarily conferred citizenship to the children of current citizens, rather than to children born within their nations’ borders. For instance, it was only in 2000 that Germany allowed children with non-German parents to acquire citizenship if at least one parent had legally resided in the country for 8 years and if the child demonstrated a link to Germany such as attending or graduating from German schools. 

Why might birthright citizenship help with assimilation? Citizenship not only confers rights and benefits upon its citizens but also places duties upon them. With citizenship comes the implicit duty to be loyal to the country’s principles and values which encourages integration within the broader American community. Francis Fukiyama points out in his excellent book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, that before Germany liberalized its immigration laws in 2000, there could be second- and third-generation children of Turkish immigrants, born in Germany, speaking perfect German, and having never been to Turkey, and still not be considered German. Yet, ethnic Germans living in the former Soviet Union who spoke no German could be naturalized. It’s not hard to see why a child of Turkish immigrants might feel isolated and excluded from their surrounding community under such a regime.

It may be that Americans have observed the success of birthright citizenship in successfully integrating many immigrants from differently places, including their own grandparents, or great-grandparents and so on, into the American community. It has led most Americans to accept the notion that “we are a nation of immigrants.” This historical memory may help explain why most Americans continue to support birthright citizenship today.