President Trump has caused larger-than-usual ripples in the news with his thoughts on limiting birthright citizenship. There are first constitutional considerations about whether jus soli citizenship can be limited at all, let alone by executive order.
Then, we have questions of merit—that is, does it help our various national interests to have a steady stream of diverse, new citizens, and how do we weigh these benefits against the potential for abuse of this system?
Scholars infinitely more qualified than I have arguments on both sides of both issues, and I won’t delve into that thicket. But, as a profound beneficiary of “birthright” citizenship, I do have a view on the aspect of jus soli citizenship that we have come to deem a “birthright”: it doesn’t exist.
I was born in California to Indian parents on student visas. My dad was enrolled in a PhD program, while my mom was working to support our family. My birth on American soil about halfway through my dad’s program automatically meant I was eligible for U.S. citizenship.
My parents’ Indian citizenship meant they had a choice: I could be an Indian or an American, but I couldn’t be both, since India didn’t recognize dual citizenship. For them, it was a no-brainer — I would be the first American in my family. But I never had a “birthright” to be one.
As the son of Indian parents, I had a right to Indian citizenship by sole virtue of my parents’ citizenship. Indeed, my claim to Indian citizenship was not so much even my own right as it was my parents’. They were Indians and it was one of their rights of Indian citizenship to pass on their national identity to their children.
Of course this isn’t unique to India. All countries extend to their citizens the right, with some qualifications, to pass on their citizenship to their children; the only other alternative is widespread statelessness, which is highly undesirable for many reasons. Indian citizenship for me, therefore, was a claimable right — one that I had access to simply by virtue of being born to Indian parents.
My American citizenship, however, was an altogether different story. I had no natural right nor owed claim to citizenship of a country just because I was born within its geographical boundaries. Nor did my parents have the right to bestow upon me a citizenship they did not possess.
In fact, they had been allowed entry into the United States after satisfactorily convincing its government that they would only be visitors in a foreign land. In the eyes of everyone, including their own, they were temporary visitors in a country not their own. My birth to my parents, therefore, only gave me access to the rights that they had to pass on to me — rights of Indian citizenship.
Unless, of course, there was a privilege involved. Whether through the 14th Amendment or the passive allowance of jus soli citizenship, America has provided a distinct privilege to those born in the United States who do not have a natural claim to citizenship.
American citizenship was not a matter of right owed me or my parents by my birth or any natural state of affairs. Rather, it was the grace of a country that had been willing to take me as one of its own even before it knew who I was, where I came from, or who I’d grow up to become. I am today a citizen of the United States by America’s graciousness— whether as manifested generations ago in the 14th Amendment or in the lack of laws restraining the privilege afforded to me.
Citizenship inherently is, and must forever remain, a matter of national and popular sovereignty. The members of a community have exclusive say in the construction of their community. As a foreigner by parentage, I could have been accepted into the community, but I certainly had no right to be accepted into it.
I consider myself blessed and am extremely grateful to America every single day for taking me in even when it wasn’t required to. This privilege of equal, unconditional acceptance for those born on its shores makes the United States a nation of principles and engenders devoted Americans who care deeply for their adoptive country.
Whether by constitutional amendment or by legislation, the American people, of which I am now one, are certainly free to withdraw this privilege as they see fit. They don’t owe it to anyone to take them in. But, in doing so, Americans would do well to understand that the privilege of American citizenship is one many cherish and seek to repay for the rest of their lives by contributing to the nation that adopted them and their families.
Now, it’s unclear whether President Trump can actually do anything to limit birthright citizenship. Indeed, most scholars on both sides of the political spectrum believe the 14th Amendment to preclude any such attempt, especially a unilateral executive order by the president.
Regardless, we must understand that American citizenship for foreigners is not an entitlement or right by birth. Instead, it is a gracious privilege whose existence rests on questions of national identity and popular sovereignty that only the American people can look within themselves to answer.