For one thing, it is extremely unlikely that Deal’s bill will become law. Compare it with the cause of limits on immigration levels. Such limits are pretty popular with the public, according to polls, but have aroused such fierce opposition among media, political, and business elites that they have not been made into law. Ending birthright citizenship would arouse even fiercer elite opposition, but without public support. In a Rasmussen poll from last November, opponents of birthright citizenship held a mere 49 to 41 percent edge. And that’s with wording favorable to their cause.
Deal does not think that his bill will set back Republicans’ efforts to increase their share of the Hispanic vote. “Those who come to our country the right way, legally, are the very ones, regardless of their national origin, who are asking us to do something about illegal immigration.” It’s true that legal immigrants tell pollsters that they would like curbs on illegal immigration. That doesn’t mean, however, that they will react well to Republican politicians who call for restrictions. Most Hispanics are likely to be outraged if Republicans appear to go after Hispanic children. Suburban moderates will conclude that Republicans are punishing children for the sins of adults — and they won’t be entirely wrong. Many Republican congressmen will oppose Deal’s bill on principle, and others will consider it political poison. The Democrats will attack it at every turn.
But let’s say it somehow manages to pass Congress anyway. And let’s say the president decides that he no longer cares about being seen as a compassionate conservative, and signs the law. It still won’t take effect: It’s a safe bet that the courts won’t allow it, whether or not they should. In other words, even making assumptions that are helpful to the bill’s proponents, the energy spent getting it enacted will be wasted.
If the number of illegal immigrants can be brought down — by, for example, stepping up enforcement at the border and the workplace — the fact that their children are counted as citizens will be less of a problem, too. The problems that Deal and his colleagues attribute to birthright citizenship are more truly the consequences of a failed immigration policy. That policy is what needs to be fixed. As Mark Krikorian, the head of CIS, puts it, “When the bathtub is overflowing, you turn the faucet off before you try to mop up the water.”
If birthright citizenship were ended without that larger policy reform, we would likely wind up with large numbers of families who would stay here for generations but never become citizens. Do we really want to adopt the German model of immigration?
Opposition to birthright citizenship is often found among opponents of the president’s guest-worker proposal. But it is a more natural cause for the supporters of that proposal. If you want to invite workers here temporarily and deport those who overstay their welcome, you had better make sure that any children they have while here aren’t citizens. (If, on the other hand, what you really want is a permanent increase in immigrant labor and are merely selling it as temporary for political reasons, you wouldn’t care.)
Deal’s legislation may be an understandable expression of frustration with the federal government’s failure to control the borders. But ending birthright citizenship is not a crucial piece of immigration reform. It’s a costly distraction from it.
– Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review, in whose February 27, 2006, issue this article first appeared.