Donald Trump, via Wiki­media Commons

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.