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Some in US Questioning 'Birthright Citizenship'

Republican presidential candidates, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, right, and Donald Trump both speak during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Simi Valley, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Some in US Questioning 'Birthright Citizenship'
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Any baby born in the United States automatically becomes a U.S. citizen. This is called “birthright citizenship.” Republicans running for president are questioning whether it should continue to be the law of the land.

Donald Trump is a New York businessman and television reality show host who wants to be president. He is calling for an end to the birthright citizenship policy. He called the policy “dumb” and “stupid.”

Ira Mehlman is media director for FAIR, the Federation for Immigration Reform. His group wants to do away with birthright citizenship.

“In an age when people can be here from any place on the planet in a matter of hours, it simply doesn’t make sense to say if you show up here illegally or you show up here in late stages of pregnancy with the intent of giving birth here in the United States, that that child should automatically be considered an American citizen with all the benefits and rights that come along with that.”

Philip Wolgin disagrees. He is the associate director for immigration at the Center for American Progress. He says people who want to do away with birthright citizenship are anti-immigration.

“There are some folks who see immigrants not as they are, as people here who are contributing, who are the very lifeblood of our nation, but unfortunately see them as the opposite. And see them as, you know, coming here for bad reasons, or you know, to take jobs and that sort of thing. That’s obviously not true and that’s not the reality of what the vast majority of immigrants in this country are coming to do, which is help build the nation.”

Countries with birthright citizenship

Of the nearly 200 countries in the world, the U.S. is only one of about 30 that have birthright citizenship. The United States and Canada are the only two “developed” countries that give birthright citizenship to tourists and illegal aliens. That is according to, a group that favors reduced immigration.

All of Central and South America grant birthright citizenship. Legal experts say the U.S. law is unique because it is part of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

No country in Europe has such a policy, says Some of the other countries that do not grant birthright are China, Israel, Russia, South Africa, Turkey, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Britain and Germany offer a type of birthright citizenship. A child may receive birthright citizenship if at least one of its parents is a permanent resident of that county.

Some countries have repealed their birthright citizenship policy. Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, France, India, Malta, the United Kingdom and Portugal all have changed their policy about birthright citizenship in their countries since 1981.

Birthright citizenship debate in the U.S.

Ending the policy in the U.S. would not be easy, because it is part of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It was approved by Congress in 1868, after the end of the Civil War. It was included in the amendment to give citizenship to former slaves who had been freed at the end of the war.

Federal agents enter an apartment complex March 3, 2015, in Irvine, Calif. to investigate a birth tourism business.
Federal agents enter an apartment complex March 3, 2015, in Irvine, Calif. to investigate a birth tourism business.

Now the term “anchor babies” has made its way into the political debates in the nation. Donald Trump and Jeb Bush both used the phrase. It is a term that many people consider derogatory.

Donald Trump pointed to babies born to women in the U.S. illegally. While the 14th Amendment grants them automatic U.S. citizenship, they cannot sponsor family members for citizenship until they are 21. However, having a U.S.-born child is often used to argue that the parents should remain in the U.S., according to NumbersUSA.

Jeb Bush said he was talking about Asian women who are so-called “birth tourists.”

U.S. officials said there is a small group of Chinese women who participate in so-called “birth tourism.” They come to the U.S. on a tourist visa at the end of their pregnancy. Then they have their babies on U.S. soil, making the children U.S. citizens. Other countries like Turkey also have birth tourism and send women to the U.S. to have babies.

How many babies are born to mothers illegally living in the U.S.? Almost 300,000 babies in 2013, says the Pew Research Center. That is eight percent of the 3.9 million babies born that year. They say that number is down from 10 years ago.

While their parents may be here illegally, the babies become U.S. citizens.

Republican candidate calls for change in birthright

Donald Trump says if he becomes president, he would work to get a court ruling that the 14th amendment does not apply to babies born here to illegal parents.

Suzanna Sherry is a professor of Law at Vanderbilt Law School in Nashville, Tennessee. She said the Supreme Court would have to rule that earlier understandings of the law were incorrect. She said “the Supreme Court has never explicitly ruled on whether people who are born here (in the U.S.) of undocumented parents are citizens, but the language of the amendment is pretty clear.”

Youth from United We Dream chant slogans calling for an end to deportations. outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices in downtown Phoenix, Feb. 22, 2014.
Youth from United We Dream chant slogans calling for an end to deportations. outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) offices in downtown Phoenix, Feb. 22, 2014.

The language says that all people born or naturalized in the U.S. are citizens of the United States and governed by federal and state law.

Mr. Mehlman says the intent of the amendment was to give citizenship to African-Americans after the Civil War. He says Congress did not mean to give birthright citizenship to everyone born here.

“The framers when they debated this in Congress were clear that they meant that people who were, who had loyalties to foreign governments, are not considered to be under the jurisdiction of the United States for the purpose of birthright citizenship.”

If the court does not rule in favor of overturning the policy, then the other option is to amend the U.S. Constitution.

That would be a long and difficult process. It requires two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Then it would have to win approval of at least three-fourths of the U.S. states.

Mr. Wolgin says birthright citizenship is only a small piece of the much bigger immigration pie.

“But I think the larger issue that needs to be fixed is the fact that we have 11.3 million people here without legal status and no way to become legal, and I think the solution is going to be to come together, both Democrats and Republicans and pass an immigration reform plan that allows people to get on that pathway to citizenship.”

In fact, many people come here legally every year. The Department of Homeland Security says more than one million people were accepted as legal permanent residents in 2011. Half of those were people already in the U.S. but had their status upgraded to “permanent.”

The presidential candidates say better enforcement would keep illegal immigrants from entering the country. Mr. Trump and others want to build a large wall across the U.S. and Mexican border.

Most likely, the immigration debate will continue throughout the election year. Then it will be up to the next President, and his or her administration, to convince Congress and the country, to make any policy changes.

I’m Anne Ball.

Anne Ball wrote this story for Learning English, with information from VOA’s Mia Bush. Kathleen Struck was the editor.


Words in This Story

automatically –adv; always happening because of a rule, law

intent –n; an aim or purpose

vast –adj; very big in size

illegal alien(s) – n; person in the country illegally

repeal –v; to officially make a law no longer valid

derogatory – adj; disrespectful

tourist visa –n; a visa to go to a country for a pleasure trip

apply –v; to formally ask for something

naturalized -v; to allow someone who was born in a different country to become a new citizen

convince v; to cause (someone) to believe that something is true