One in ten children born in this country has an illegal immigrant for a mother. Every one of those children of illegal immigrants is a U.S. citizen. Birth on American soil automatically qualifies a child for citizenship, whatever his parents’ legal status. (Birth above American soil — on a helicopter, for example — also counts.) Many conservatives want to change the law: to make it so that the children of illegal immigrants will no longer automatically be citizens. It is a misguided, and potentially disastrous, response to the problems created by our immigration policies.
Those problems certainly exist. Granting citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants makes it harder to enforce the immigration laws. If illegal immigrants have children while they’re here, officials have three choices: Deport the whole family, including the young U.S. citizens; deport the adults and break up the family; or do nothing. The last option tends to win out. The critics say that “birthright citizenship” rewards, and thus stimulates, illegal immigration. Illegal immigrants know that they can drastically reduce their chances of being deported if they have children.
The children of illegal immigrants also impose costs on the taxpayer. Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors restrictions on immigration, has studied the impact of illegal immigrants on the federal budget. He finds that while they often pay payroll taxes and do not use welfare or Medicaid disproportionately — both facts run counter to popular wisdom — they nonetheless cost the federal government $10 billion a year. (CIS was also the source for the one-in-ten-children estimate with which this article began.) Some state governments also suffer substantial losses. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, another restrictionist group, estimates that educating the children of illegal immigrants and providing other services cost California $10 billion in 2004.
Most countries don’t offer birthright citizenship. The Republican platform in 1996, during the last high tide of anti-immigration sentiment, called for America to join the majority. President Bush’s men took that line out of subsequent platforms; it didn’t fit with his pro-immigration, compassionate conservatism.
Now Rep. Nathan Deal, a Republican from Georgia, is worrying the White House with a bill to end automatic citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants. He has 81 co-sponsors, all but one of them Republicans.