Rethinking Citizenship—Is Born In The U.S.A. Enough?

There are two main paths to acquiring citizenship in the United States and a few minor ones. The first is to be born here. The others are via legal immigration, birth abroad to a U.S. citizen, and certain adoptions.

Then there’s birthright citizenship, which is recognized in only 25 countries, 13% of the nations on earth, and all but three of them are in the Americas. In recent years, France, New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland have abolished birthright citizenship.

The US-born children of foreign diplomatic officers are not eligible to be citizens. Citizenship is currently granted, however, to all other children born here to foreigners, about 10% of the close to 4 million births here in 2019.

About a quarter of these are the children of Chinese and other-nationality women engaged in “birth tourism.” They constitute a growing group of American citizens with no connections to the United States, its people, culture, or dynamism, other than their return ticket to their home country after having been born here and a U.S. passport. The other three-quarters are born to illegal aliens, more than likely to parents living in fear while striving to stay under the DHS radar—not a particularly healthy relationship with their country of residence.

The history of citizenship law is interesting and full of twists and turns. Andrew R. Arthur, Resident Fellow in Law and Policy at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and a former Immigration Judge, lays it all out in his article Birthright Citizenship: An Overview. CIS has published a number of pieces with varying viewpoints on this topic over the years that can be found here.

The current practice needs to be changed, I believe, especially considering the millions now pouring across our southern border. The most reasonable process would be to pass a law holding that a child born in the United States to non-citizen parents is accorded the immigration status of those parents.

Thus, a child born to foreign university students, who hold current and valid legal admissions to study in the United States, would be accorded the temporary status of a child of a student (nonimmigrant visa classification F-2). This is the status the child would have had if it was born in the parents’ home country, or in any of nearly 170 other countries, before their arrival here or while home during a school break. The same should hold for every other child born here to an alien in temporary status and good standing—workers, researchers, tourists, business executives, athletes, and all the rest.

A child born in the United States to lawfully admitted permanent residents (LPRs, also called green card holders) should be born a permanent resident. The child can be naturalized at the same time as its parents or upon becoming eligible to apply on his or her own.

Image by Andrea Widburg

Refugees and Asylees

By definition in law, a refugee is a person who has been persecuted or has a well-founded fear of persecution on specific grounds in his or her home country, the grounds of which are of interest to the United States. Being poor, or wanting a different or better life elsewhere, classifies one as an economic migrant, not a refugee.

When I worked on refugee issues long ago, countries generally adhered to the principle of country of first asylum. That is, once a person was free from the country that persecuted him, he was deemed to have found refuge and would be expected to seek a home there.

Some countries bordering the sources of persecuted people, however, were too poor or otherwise unable to take in many refugees so the international community would process them in the country of first asylum for placement elsewhere. Those taken in by the United States entered with the status of refugee.

An asylee is someone who applies for and is granted refugee status from within the United States. Typically, under the principle of country of first asylum, this would be someone who washes up on our shores like Cubans or Haitians, or who manages to get on a plane in his home country that disembarks in the United States. Historically, it did not include anyone presenting themselves at a land or other border who had passed through other countries to get here.

Those granted refugee or asylee status have the option to qualify for and obtain permanent residence and eventually citizenship. Their children born here should be accorded conditional permanent resident status. This conditional status could then be converted to LPR status when the parents obtain LPR status or upon application on their own when 21 or older.


Those who enter the United States without permission and those who overstay their temporary visas are illegal aliens; just being here out of status is a crime. Children born to them should have no legal immigration status. Children belong to their parents, not to the state. They belong with their parents. If parents are removed from the U.S., then their children should go with them.

These proposed changes to current practice would have a salutary effect on the country. We would not see our population growing due to those fraudulently applying for visas to do one thing when they are actually coming to get a foothold in the country through giving birth to an anchor baby. Fraud is not a nice way to start any relationship.

The current wait is a minimum of 21 years, the age at which an American citizen can petition for his or her parents to receive immigrant visas. Despite this, hundreds of thousands of children are born in this country to illegals every year. Mr. Arthur’s article details the cost of these births to the U.S. taxpayer. Breaking the anchor chain is a worthy goal and might well deter a percentage of the current tsunami of illegals at our borders.

Republicans in Congress need to get busy and introduce new legislation designed to clarify and limit nationality to those who may rightfully claim it. Though such a bill wouldn’t go anywhere this session, it would be ready to be reintroduced and passed as soon as the 118th Congress is installed. Then it can be passed again over a Presidential veto and become law. Note my optimism for a sweeping change in 2022. Let’s Go Brandon!

[See also Anony Mee's essay arguing against a path to citizenship for illegal aliens.]

Anony Mee is the nom de blog of a retired public servant.

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