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Focus on Anchor Babies Misses Broader Immigration Problems

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Focus on Anchor Babies Misses Broader Immigration Problems

August 25, 2015

The United States and Canada are the only two industrialized countries that confer automatic citizenship on babies born within the countries’ borders, even if their parents are not citizens. In the United States, this is a constitutional right. The Fourteenth Amendment states that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States …”  

Yet some Republicans, such as Donald Trump, want to deny citizenship to children born here to undocumented workers by changing or reinterpreting the Fourteenth Amendment.  This is a stunt. Without solutions to our immigration mess, this measure, taken alone, would only exacerbate the problem we have of millions here illegally. 

It’s no coincidence that the debate over birthright citizenship has sprung up in the wake of the breakdown in the rule of law under President Obama. Rather than being returned to their home countries, undocumented workers are welcomed at the border and settled in various communities around the country.  Criminals who are deported return and continue to commit crimes, as in the recent case of Guaymar Cabrera-Hernandez  who was deported, returned, released from the Montgomery County Detention Center, and carjacked two cars in the Washington, D.C. area last week.

As America’s laws break down, doing away with the Fourteenth Amendment appears newly attractive.  Rather than doing away with birthright citizenship, we need to enforce our current immigration laws.

Advocates of changing the Constitution say that undocumented workers should not be rewarded by a gift of citizenship to their children, and that the prospect of automatic citizenship for newborns draws people to America illegally. Others reply that depriving babies of citizenship because parents do not have the right papers would make children pay for the sins of the parents, and that changing the Fourteenth Amendment would go against years of precedent, making America into a less welcoming country.

Leaders of both parties deem our 12 million illegal immigrants unacceptable, and this is the crux of our immigration challenge. Our goal should be to have a situation in which there are few illegal immigrants in America.  If that were the case, birthright citizenship would be a non-issue. 

To focus on birthright citizenship as a solution to our immigration problems supposes that the United States will stay in this situation for the foreseeable future. In other words, we have given up. 

A better solution is to change is our broken immigration system. Realistically, we cannot deport millions of illegal immigrants.  Nor would we want to do so.  Many are married to American citizens, work, support American children, and pay taxes.

One answer is to go back to the basic immigration plans agreed upon by the congressional leaders in 2007 and 2013.  This would allow undocumented workers without criminal convictions to pay a fine, receive a special visa allowing them to work legally, and place them in line for a green card behind existing applicants. 

This approach did not pass because members from both parties objected. Some Democrats said it was too tough because recipients of the new visas would not be able to receive welfare payments for five years and family preferences for future immigration were restricted.  

Some Republicans thought it was too easy, equivalent to "amnesty," a code word for opposition to immigrants, because it opened a path for undocumented workers to stay here legally—and did not fully address security problems at the Mexican border.

The result has been that our immigration system has deteriorated. Current laws are not enforced and some are resorting to playing with the wording of the Fourteenth Amendment in an attempt to find a quick fix.

The federal government needs to allocate increased resources to border security, spurred by gangs and threats from ISIS. Instead, it welcomes anyone who comes, giving others and incentive to make their way here illegally. Reforming our immigration system would help the economy recover by allowing more innovators—and more agricultural workers—to provide much-needed skills. 

America’s economy relies on immigrant talent, both high-skilled in research, finance, and innovation, and low-skilled in hotels, restaurants, office cleaning, construction, lawn service, and farms.  

The costs of immigration would decrease if foreigners who want to work here could pay the government for legal visas, with funds from the permits used to purchase basic health insurance and biometric identification cards, and income taxes collected to pay for services. Criminals could be more easily identified and deported. 

Getting rid of birthright citizenship will not solve the fundamental problem—the breakdown of the rule of law in America, and the need to secure the border and provide more legal visas.


Diana Furchtgott-Roth, director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute, is the coauthor of "Disinherited: How Washington Is Betraying America's Young." Follow her on Twitter here.

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