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Citizenship Matters

Citizenship Matters

Citizenship matters. In the United States, citizens get to vote for public officials to represent them; non-citizens don't. Citizens are guaranteed access to the safety net of social services our government has constructed; non-citizens, though they must pay taxes like the rest of us, receive only sporadic assistance in return. Even after committing heinous crimes, citizens cannot be kicked out of the U.S.; non-citizens can be deported even when they have not been convicted of a crime.

Who gets the privilege of United States citizenship? The way that citizenship works here in the U.S. is pretty simple when you get down to it: if you were born in this country, you're a citizen. If you weren't born in this country, you must apply for citizenship.

This way of organizing citizenship is not universal in our world. Take, for instance, the German model of citizenship, in which ethnic ancestry plays a pivotal role. Families who have lived in Germany for generations have been denied citizenship because they lack the "virtue" of a German bloodline. Although a man may have spent his entire life living in Dresden, he is a "Turk" because his great-grandparents lived in Turkey. At the end of the 20th century, nearly 2 million "foreigners" living in Germany were actually born in Germany. Only with the turn of the millenium are these restrictive laws being modestly reformed.

Jurisdiction, Immigration, the Constitution and Citizenship

In the last session of Congress, Representative Bob Stump of Arizona and 20 cosponsors, 91% of whom are Republican politicians, introduced legislation that would move the U.S. away from its traditional conception of citizenship, toward the model of Germany. H.R. 190 would deny citizenship to babies born in the United States unless those babies' parents are themselves citizens.

One of the strongest proponents of the bill outside the Congress is FAIR, The Federation for American Immigration Reform. FAIR's web site argues that the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution is meant to keep the children of illegal immigrants from gaining citizenship by being born on U.S. soil. The germane section of 14th Amendment reads as follows: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside."

In a form letter to members of Congress in support of H.R. 190, FAIR argues that the children of illegal immigrants "are not 'subject to the jurisdiction' of the United States, but owe their allegiance to a foreign country...they too have rejected the application of U.S. law by either sneaking into the country or by failing to depart when required to do so."

In his own introduction of H.R. 190 to the House of Representatives, Rep. Stump reiterated this point: "there is no constitutional requirement to confer citizenship to the U.S. born children of illegal aliens. Illegal aliens cannot be subject to the jurisdiction of the United States because they are in the United States without legal authority."

Clearly, Stump and FAIR are interested in this issue of citizenship because they wish to stem what they see as an inappropriate tide of illegal immigration. Stump's starkly laid out his priorities in remarks to the Arizona Republic on May 25, 2001: "I don't know what the answer is. I'm more interested in trying to stop them than doing more to help them. I don't mean to sound inhumane, but it's only going to lead to more crossings if you take the danger away."

Critical Response

Critics of H.R. 190 and FAIR say that the 14th Amendment is very clear: "jurisdiction" means being subject to U.S. law, as acknowledged in the previous paragraphs. Children of immigrants are certainly subject to U.S. law, and thereby fall under U.S. jurisdiction. The 14th Amendment, they maintain, is crystal-clear: if you're born in the U.S., you are a citizen.

Critics also draw attention to what they see as logical and rhetorical misdirection in Stump's and FAIR's argument: both complain that illegal immigrants forfeit U.S. jurisdiction by flaunting U.S. law when crossing the border. Does this mean, then, that naturalized citizens should lose their citizenship whenever they break the law? If not, what is the difference?

A further problem is that Stump and FAIR complain about the violation of U.S. law by illegal immigrants. But it is not those illegal immigrants whose citizenship is at issue. It is their children, born on American soil, who are citizens. These children did not "sneak into the country." Neither are U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants themselves illegal immigrants, since they have not immigrated from anywhere. They have themselves broken no law, shown no contempt for the legal system. It is clearly to them alone - "All persons born or naturalized in the United States" - that the Constitution refers.

In order for FAIR's argument to make sense, the critics continue, one must hold to a theory that the criminality or other stigma of unacceptability held by a parent is inherited by the parent's U.S.-born child. This is precisely the German model, in which bloodlines trump individuality. Is this the view of the world the United States Constitution embodies? Critics of H.R. 190 maintain it is not now, and should not be in the future.


In sum, the debate surrounding this bill not only has important implications for children of immigrants (legal and illegal), but also reflects a broader social controversy regarding the relative importance of liberty, inherited stigma, and the permanence of national identity. Pretty heady and important stuff.

But has this legislative effort garnered any coverage in the nation's major newspapers? No. Not one bit. Not a single mention.

Regardless of where you stand on this piece of legislation, sweeping it under the carpet and pretending it just doesn't exist is inexcusable. And if you think this is the only bill that is being selectively ignored, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Until major media outlets deign to cover the political process in any detailed fashion, we're going to have cover it ourselves.

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Editor's note: this article was originally published on Suite101, and has been transferred by the author to this site.