Many Republicans are falling over themselves to echo Donald Trump’s call to end birthright citizenship. Experts will be debating the legality of this for some time — many say a constitutional amendment would be needed — but the real‐world impact of birthright citizenship is more important than the legal nuances. Granting citizenship to those born here is an insurance policy for a broken immigration system: It encourages the children of illegal immigrants to assimilate.
Currently, there are roughly 4 million U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants and 17 million minor children of legal immigrants. Those already born wouldn’t be affected by a repeal, but roughly 1 million babies are born every year to immigrants. As immigration attorney Margaret Stock wrote, “If proponents of changing the Fourteenth Amendment have their way, every baby born in America will now face a bureaucratic hurdle before he or she gets a birth certificate.” That’s a huge number of newborns to annually condemn to automatic illegal status — and doing so would substantially increase the number of illegal immigrants in the country.
That would be bad enough, but the bigger problems would emerge later, as this larger population of illegal immigrants would assimilate more slowly. Assimilation, or the politically correct term “integration,” mostly occurs in the second and third generations. Denying citizenship to children of immigrants would deny them legal equality in the United States, stunting their ability to culturally and economically assimilate.
Imagine being born and growing up here and being constantly reminded that you are not a citizen and will likely never be one. That scenario is theoretical for Americans, but Koreans born in Japan have experienced just that and the results are ugly. The Korean minority, called zainichi, are a legal underclass discriminated against by the government. This causes deep resentment and a proneness to crime and political extremism. The zainichi grew even though Japan has virtually zero legal immigration. By contrast, Korean immigrants and their descendants have thrived in the United States where their U.S.-born children are citizens.
And successful assimilation isn’t limited to Korean Americans. According to research from University of Washington professor Jacob Vigdor, immigrants and their children from all backgrounds are culturally, linguistically, and economically assimilating today at about the same rate that immigrants assimilated 100 years ago. Nobody today thinks the descendants of the Italian, Polish, or Russian immigrants of early last century failed to assimilate.
The negative effects of making citizenship much harder or impossible to attain go way back. Republican Rome tightened its citizenship rules after the Second Punic War ended in 202 BC. Romans turned their backs on a previous open‐door policy that allowed noble families to immigrate and naturalize while also granting citizenship to loyal allies. The new immigration restrictions led to an uprising in cities pushing for Roman citizenship — one of the stranger civil wars in history. To quiet the unrest, Rome finally reinstated the older rules that had served it so well.
America doesn’t face a revolt of allies demanding citizenship, but it does face millions of illegal immigrants, their U.S.-born children, and the challenge of assimilating them. There will always be some illegal immigrants in the United States, regardless of reform or levels of enforcement. Birthright citizenship is an insurance policy that guarantees their children will assimilate instead of simmer on the margins of society.
We are the midst of a failed immigration policy that has produced around 12 million illegal immigrants. Now is not the time to cancel birthright citizenship and its benefits.