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Birthright Citizenship: Protector of Privilege

Introduction

How did you end up where you’re sitting right now? Most likely, your alarm clock goes off, you get out of bed, and by train, bus, or foot, you go to class. 

However, you likely didn’t choose where you go to school. Your parents probably did. Maybe before you were born or after, your parents moved to a city, town, or district that had a school, and maybe that’s the school you attend. Otherwise, you might go somewhere that your parents picked for you - a private or charter school. Sometimes, especially when your course load gets rough, it can feel like you had no say in whether or not you go to school at all. 

On a much bigger scale, you probably never picked where you live either. Although you didn’t choose your homeland, you probably feel a sense of national identity. Have you ever wondered how you got that identity? Have you ever reflected on what the identity does or doesn’t allow you to do? 

Explanation

For the majority of the world’s population, national identity is determined by birthright citizenship. Thirty-three countries grant citizenship to anyone born within the borders of that country, even if their parents are not citizens. Other countries only allow people to be citizens if their parents are also citizens. Countries not only determine the different ways people become citizens but also what privileges citizenship grants. 

On the one hand, citizenship status can guarantee some people equal political participation and status in a community. On the other, birthright citizenship has been criticized for acting as a lottery that grants some members of nations far more privileges for something as arbitrary as their birthplace. 

Birthright Citizenship

Birthright citizenship is the practice of awarding citizen status to anyone born within the country’s borders, regardless of the citizenship status or country membership of the parents. 

The History

Birthright, independent of citizenship, has always been a feature of society. Ayelet Shachar, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a legal scholar, compares birthright citizenship to the practice of entail. Through entail, families could ensure that their property was passed down from generation to generation. Shachar writes that this is how birthright citizenship is passed down, ensuring that certain statuses and privileges are never challenged. 

Under English Common Law, citizenship was decided by the place of one’s birth. Many nations, including Australia and New Zealand, retained the practice of birthright citizenship to entrench white ethnic populations in colonized territories. When the United States declared its independence in 1776, citizenship for white Americans was assumed. However, Black Americans were denied citizenship at a national level until the passage of the 14th Amendment. Ratified in 1868, the Amendment states that “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 the 21st century, more than 30 countries offer birthright citizenship in a model that is similar to the United States. This means that in those countries, all people born within the borders are considered citizens. Most of those nations are in the western hemisphere. In other countries, such as France, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and the Dominican Republic, birthright citizenship was abolished. Some of those nations now limit citizenship to those born to a parent that has citizenship in that country. 

In many of these cases, the decision to end or even erase birthright citizenship stemmed from anti-immigrant sentiment and anxiety about “birther-tourism.” In Ireland, for example, birthright citizenship was abolished in response to the case of Man Lavette Chen, a Chinese national who traveled to Northern Ireland so that her daughter would be born an Irish citizen and then applied for citizenship in the United Kingdom. The resulting referendum passed in 2004 was supported by 80 percent of voters.

Why Care?

Global inequality is at an all-time high. The wealth distribution between nations has never been more disparate as environmental destruction disproportionately harms less wealthy nations. The reality of these inequalities, along with many others, demands the global community to be critical of how we define, and therefore limit, citizenship.

In the United States, for example, birthright citizenship has proved to be an important tool since the passage of the 14th Amendment. It has protected different groups, including Black Americans as well as immigrants from Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe. However, despite the good it’s done in the United States, birthright citizenship does not guarantee political equality. As demonstrated by countless politicians and public leaders, xenophobia remains rampant, regardless of citizenship status. Anyone suspected of being "an outsider" because of their skin, faith, or general behavior faces extreme prejudice. We cannot allow birthright citizenship to be used as a signpost for supposed equality when it is too often arbitrary and exclusionary.

Think Further

  1. What is a potential alternative to birthright citizenship?
  2. Do you agree or disagree that birthright citizenship perpetuates inequality? Why?
  3. What are some ways that countries could account for the “accident of birth” that means some citizens are far more privileged than others?

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  1. Friedman, Yasmeen Serhan, Uri. “America Isn’t the ‘Only Country’ With Birthright Citizenship.” The Atlantic, 31 Oct. 2018. www.theatlantic.com, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/10/birthright-citizenship-other-countries-trump/574453/.
  2. Perl-Rosenthal, Nathan. “The Troubling Origins of Birthright Politics | The Nation.” The Nation, 2 June 2020. https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/birthright-citizens-race-about-politics-martha-jones-jean-frederic-schaub-book-review/.
  3. Pittman, Kayla. “Episode 255: Martha S. Jones, Birthright Citizens – Ben Franklin’s World.” Ben Franklin’s World, 9 Sept. 2019, https://benfranklinsworld.com/episode-255-martha-s-jones-birthright-citizens/.
  4. Shachar, Ayelet. “Introduction:: The Puzzle of Birthright Citizenship.” The Birthright Lottery, Harvard University Press, 2009, pp. 1–18. JSTOR, JSTOR, doi:10.2307/j.ctvjhzr8r.4.