In his article, “President Trump Is Right to End Birthright Citizenship,” Garrison Grisedale takes drive-by style aim at birthright citizenship, targeting everything from the interpretation of the 14th Amendment to social contract theory. Let others spill ink in the volumes it will take to settle the primary question of interest in Mr. Grisedale’s piece –– the practical consequences of birthright citizenship. I would like to simply ask whether the denial of birthright citizenship is right in principle.
The principle I argue for is a simple one: A person who grows up in American society and learns to function in and respect it with parents who are legal citizens is indistinguishable from someone else in identical circumstances with parents who are not legal citizens.
It seems strange to take two children who have both been raised to love America and tell one that they rightly belong in a foreign land they have never known simply because his parents were not also born in the U.S. But this is the logical consequence of ending birthright citizenship.
And yet, there is nothing in the blood of a child whose parents were legal citizens that is different from a child whose parents were illegal immigrants.
One might argue that this only applies to people who are old enough to gain familiarity with the U.S. and come to identify with it. There’s a case for this: A possible compromise might reward birthright citizenship at a certain age rather than at birth. While this is more palatable than total opposition to birthright citizenship, there are principled challenges to it.
Why should we look at an infant and say she rightfully belongs in a land where she has never been, especially when there is nobody in that land who can rightfully claim her? If the parents are sent back to the place of their rightful citizenship, we would certainly want them to be able to bring the child back with them by their volition. But to say a child belongs where he has never been because of the citizenship status of his parents seems like a non sequitur.
If we do say that a child necessarily belongs elsewhere, I fear such an attitude would quickly lead to, if not foster, a xenophobic degrading of the children of immigrants as second-class citizens. They would be seen as people whose claim to citizenship is weaker than the claims of those whose heritage is more well rooted in the U.S. Such a position would not make much sense, but history has shown that bad ideas do not need to make sense to thrive.
Mr. Grisedale does try to appeal to a principle of his own: the social contract theory. Mr. Grisedale argues that this theory poses problems for children of illegal immigrants since U.S. citizens have not consented to those children becoming citizens. The merit of social contract theory itself is far from a settled debate (let alone the extent to which the authors of the Constitution wished for such issues to be framed in light of social contract theory). But even more importantly, applying social contract theory to the process of citizenship rather than to the government is inconsistent with how the U.S. government was intended to run and any efficient immigration process. As it is, citizenship is determined via government agencies rather than any sort of democratic process in which citizens have a true voice. Requiring some direct, meaningful, coherent notion of social contract for the immigration process would make this even worse.
Social contract theory could very well apply to questions of immigration in the sense that someone can join our social contract through lawful means established by the government to which we have consented. But this weaker application of social contract still permits birthright citizenship, on principle, as it has been commonly understood and carried out for decades.
One might still argue that birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants is not, in fact, constitutional, therefore it still violates our social contract. However, the constitutionality of birthright citizenship is a question of facts — not of principles inherent in social contract theory. It requires a debate that involves the fundamentals of constitutional interpretation, legal terminology, and precedent.
For our part, Hillsdale students should accept that from a principled standpoint, the common understanding of birthright citizenship is the correct one.
Kyle Huitt is a senior studying philosophy and history.