The Agenda

On Birthright Citizenship

A few weeks ago, I briefly noted that Will Wilkinson had changed my mind about birthright citizenship. Will is a firm believer in open borders immigration policy, so his advocacy of birthright citizenship is counterintuitive. Yet it rests on a realistic and decidedly unromantic view of what it means to be a citizen of a modern market democracy — that is, of a welfare state:

To be a citizen of a wealthy country is a lot like being a member of a private club. Yet even the wealthiest national clubs are straining to deliver the benefits promised to members. If a club’s rules permit visitors, invited or not, to mint new members simply by giving birth, cash-strapped current members are bound to object.

As Alesina and Glaeser have argued, high levels of ethnoracial diversity tend to mean lower levels of redistribution. Across northern Europe, the ranks of anti-immigration protest movements have grown markedly over the last three decades as foreign born populations have grown, and as generous social protections have been put under strain for a variety of reasons. 

For Will, poverty-alleviating labor mobility is the highest priority, and he suggests that the end of birthright citizenship might encourage the citizens of affluent countries to be more welcoming towards economic migrants who don’t enjoy expensive social protections. 

Birthright citizenship made sense for a frontier country with open borders, newly freed slaves, and a small, remote bureaucracy. But the time seems ripe to consider alternatives. Ending full birthright citizenship leaves open many intermediate possibilities, such as granting citizenship to children born to foreign citizens who have legally resided in the country for a predetermined number of years. In response to agitation over a growing population of Turkish guest workers, Germany changed its rules to grant citizenship to Germany-born children of Germany-born children of resident foreigners.

There’s ample reason to believe a change in policy could make America a more immigrant-friendly place while simultaneously restricting the costly benefits of citizenship. Though undocumented immigrants are ineligible for most forms of government assistance, their America-born kids do qualify, which is no doubt an attraction to some prospective immigrant parents. The hard-right Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce speaks for many Americans when he says birthright citizenship “rewards lawbreakers.” What’s more, because these children, once grown, can sponsor family members for authorized migration, they function as border-spanning bridges over which a retinue of relatives may trod. These relatives, once naturalized, can in turn sponsor aunts and uncles and cousins without end. Hence the fear of the “anchor baby,” a gurgling demographic landmine set to explode into a multi-headed invasion of Telemundo fans.

Will goes on to observe that an impressive 58 percent of voters surveyed by Rasmussen support an end to birthright citizenship.

Of course, one could also support ending birthright citizenship as a matter of simple fairness. Keith B. Richburg, veteran Washington Post correspondent, has written a fascinating article on a new business:

What can $14,750 buy you in modern China? Not a Tiffany diamond or a mini-sedan, say Robert Zhou and Daisy Chao. But for that price, they guarantee you something more lasting, with unquestioned future benefits: a U.S. passport and citizenship for your new baby.

Zhou and Chao, a husband and wife from Taiwan who now live in Shanghai, run one of China’s oldest and most successful consultancies helping well-heeled expectant Chinese mothers travel to the United States to give birth.

The couple’s service, outlined in a PowerPoint presentation, includes connecting the expectant mothers with one of three Chinese-owned “baby care centers” in California. For the $14,750 basic fee, Zhou and Chao will arrange for a three-month stay in a center — two months before the birth and a month after. A room with cable TV and a wireless Internet connection, plus three meals, starts at $35 a day. The doctors and staff all speak Chinese. There are shopping and sightseeing trips.

The mothers must pay their own airfare and are responsible for getting a U.S. visa, although Zhou and Chao will help them fill out the application form.

This is not a practice limited to the Chinese community. We live in a world of extreme inequality. As Lant Pritchett, Michael Clemens, and Claudio Montenegro have found, the “place premium” is enormous:

Following all of these adjustments the paper estimates that the wages of a Peruvian worker willing to work in the United States are about 2.6 times as much as the same person would make in Peru. This figure for Peru is typical among the 42 developing countries analyzed, but for some it is much higher. For Filipino it is around 3.5, and for a Haitian it is over 7. In other words, a Nigerian moderately-educated adult male urban formal-sector wage worker who moves to the U.S. increases his wages by several hundred percent.

As the authors explain, “these gaps represent one of the largest remaining price distortions in any global market.” Migration is a form of arbitrage, and it would be very strange if large numbers of people didn’t try to migrate, regardless of the legal barriers. And the people who would be most likely to want to migrate — less-skilled workers for whom the place premium is particularly large — have very few legal channels, as affluent countries tend to favor skilled migrants. Birthright citizenship is thus a powerful incentive.

Many on the left are claiming that the movement to restrict birthright citizenship to the children of lawful permanent residents reflects bigotry. I had a lengthy Twitter exchange on this subject a few days ago, and I observed that the United States is very much an outlier: most other affluent countries have a modified form of jus soli, including Australia and Britain and New Zealand. New Zealand reformed its citizenship laws in 2006. I also argued that most people who propose reforming birthright citizenship are motivated by a sense that the current policy is unfair and unjust rather than hatred of Mexicans and other foreigners.

But of course not everyone agrees. Matt Yglesias writes:


When not marveling at Democratic reluctance to stand up for values of religious freedom that Republicans used to upholduntil all the sane ones suddenly went MIA, I’ve been marveling lately at the surge of enthusiasm for repealing the 14th Amendment so as to modify the birthright citizenship proposal. Many countries don’t follow American practice in this regard, so if you want to play make-believe you can simply pretend that right-wing politicians suddenly noticed this fact and are intrigued on the merits by the Norwegian approach to citizenship or something.

Obviously, though, in the real world mainstream politicians were not up in arms about this a few years ago and they didn’t change their minds thanks to a close reading of Gerhard Schröder’s immigration reforms.

Of course, real world mainstream politicians in border states like Arizona and California have been talking about reforming birthright citizenship for years

On Monday, I appeared on a CNN television program and the conversation was dominated by rival interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment. Eric Foner, a distinguished left-wing historian at Columbia, was brought on the program to discuss the debate surrounding the Amendment, and his implication was fairly clear: the Fourteenth Amendment reflected the universalistic aspirations of the Radical Republicans, and it absolutely envisioned the children of immigrants as part of its extension of citizenship rights. The trouble, as the host of the program observed earlier on, is that there was no border enforcement regime as we understand that term today. Despite efforts to restrict Chinese migration, there were essentially no restrictions on migration. And so the idea of a “lawful permanent resident” might not have had the same resonance. This isn’t to say that Foner isn’t right on the narrow constitutional question — ending birthright citizenship would require an Amendment. But it is certainly useful context.

And a quick glance at the demographics of the over 12 million legal U.S. permanent residents, i.e., non-citizens holding green cards, suggests that it is a very diverse group, with people of European origin in the minority. As of 2006, the top countries of birth for legal U.S. permanent residents were Mexico, the Philippines, India, China, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Canada, El Salvador, Cuba, the United Kingdom, South Korea, Jamaica, Haiti, Colombia, Germany, Guatemala, Poland, Japan, Russia, and Ukraine. Note that a number of small countries — the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Jamaica, and Haiti — are heavily represented. It’s worth comparing these numbers to the number of applicants for the diversity visa lottery, to give you a sense of the varying levels of demand for the right to migrate to the United States legally.

The children of lawful permanent residents really do represent a diverse array of cultural and ethnoracial backgrounds, so the reform of birthright citizenship backed by 58 percent of voters, if you trust the Rasmussen survey, would not undermine the universalistic aspirations of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

It could be that 58 percent of the U.S. voting population consists of irrational bigots who hate freedom. I doubt it. But it’s at least possible. What’s depressing is that our immigration debate has not been a forthright and honest debate. Advocates of a comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path of citizenship often make an argument that an enforcement-first or attrition policy is inhumane. One could argue, however, that any border enforcement is inhumane in a world defined by extreme inequality. Every story should tug at our heartstrings. As hard as this recession has been on many American families, there is no question that life for the large majority of children growing up Haiti or Burkina Faso or Pakistan is vastly harder. We’ve collectively decided, however, that we have a special interest in our fellow citizens, and that we will give them precedence over those who suffer from grinding poverty in other countries.

If we wanted to craft a more humane immigration policy without embracing open borders, we might consider admitting the same number of immigrants we do now through a combination of deliberate policy and neglect and distribute the right to immigrate along different lines. A humane policy with an eye towards maximizing global poverty alleviation would not facilitate economic migration from a relatively affluent country. Rather, it would involve an effort to reduce the undocumented influx to zero while creating a guest worker program that would allow workers from the world’s poorest countries — not Mexico, which is a middle income country with a GDP per capita at PPP of $13,628, far wealthier than Turkey or Brazil or South Africa or China and in the same weight class as Russia and Chile and Latvia — for a limited period of time. Our current immigration regime redistributes wealth from a rich country to a less rich country in the form of remittances, not from a rich country to the world’s poorest countries. It should be obvious that this isn’t the kind of policy even an ardent egalitarian should fight for tooth and nail. Indeed, it is so far from obvious that it raises the question of whether the goal here is political and not humanitarian 

Enforcing immigration laws means that some people will be forcibly removed from living in the United States. If our objection is to forcible removal, we have essentially decided to embrace an open borders policy. That is a legitimate view, shared by a number of articulate and often persuasive libertarians and anarchists. In Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology [PDF], the brilliant left-wing anthropologist David Graeber writes:

One Autonomist historian, Yann Moulier Boutang, haseven argued that the history of capitalism has been a series of attempts to solve the problem of worker mobility—hence the endless elaboration of institutions like indenture, slavery, coolie systems, contractworkers, guest workers, innumerable forms of border control—since, if the system ever really came close to its own fantasy version of itself, in which workers were free to hire on and quit their work wherever and whenever they wanted, the entire system would collapse. It’s for precisely this reason that the one most consistent demand put forward by the radical elements in the globalization movement—from the Italian Autonomists to North American anarchists—has always been global freedom of movement, “real globalization,” the destruction of borders, a general tearing down of walls.

Some advocates of market liberalism would dispute Boutang’s reading of the history of worker mobility. I for one seriously doubt that a system of free and voluntary exchange would collapse in an open borders world. But open borders would certainly cause dislocation. When people argue that forcible removal is inhumane, they ought to be more specific: is all forcible removal inhumane? If so, is any border enforcement legitimate?

Of course, very few voters favor an open borders policy, and so humanitarian arguments help blur the central question of what kind of immigration law we want to have — which is itself a question concerning the future demographic composition of the United States. For example, some advocates of immigration restriction want to craft policies that would increase the proportion of U.S. adults with postsecondary degrees or with a high-level of English-language proficiency, or both. This might entail changing the composition of the immigrant influx so that it becomes more Afro-Caribbean, African, South Asian, and European and less Latin. 

So again, there’s something fishy here. Lawful permanent residents are generally not European-origin whites, the immigration status quo is not focused on aided the world’s poor, there is an actual industry designed to exploit birthright citizenship, and for whatever reason people are convinced that the only motivation for reforming birthright citizenship is raw bigotry?

Even if some advocates of reform are bigots, does this have any bearing on whether or not it is a wise policy, assuming there are good reasons for pursuing the policy that have nothing to do with racial animus? This episode is another reminder that politics is, for most of us, about psychodrama. I find it pretty tiresome. 


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