George Will and Citizenship

By Mark Krikorian on March 29, 2010

George Will has never been particularly good on immigration, so I was a little surprised by his column calling for an end to automatic citizenship at birth (specifically, for the U.S.-born children of illegal aliens).

There are three issues: legal, empirical, and political. The first is the easiest — there just is no way to argue with a straight face that the drafters of the 14th amendment intended to give citizenship to the children of illegal aliens (Will persuasively cites this law review article by Lino Graglia). In fact, the amendment probably wasn't meant to apply even to U.S.-born children of legal immigrants who hadn't yet become citizens, though the Supreme Court decided otherwise in the 1898 Wong Kim Ark decision.

Second is the empirical question. Will writes:

A parent from a poor country, writes professor Lino Graglia of the University of Texas law school, "can hardly do more for a child than make him or her an American citizen, entitled to all the advantages of the American welfare state." Therefore, "It is difficult to imagine a more irrational and self-defeating legal system than one which makes unauthorized entry into this country a criminal offense and simultaneously provides perhaps the greatest possible inducement to illegal entry." [my emphasis -- MK]

This may or may not be true. We can theorize about incentives all we want, but I haven't seen any real research on the motivations of people considering illegal immigration to the United States. (If anyone knows of such research, let me know.) In the case of birth tourism, the motivation is obvious, but most illegal-immigrant mothers aren't in this category. While I'm open to persuasion, right now I just don't buy the argument that having U.S.-citizen children is a significant enough magnet — as opposed to easy access to jobs or coming to join family members — to persuade people to move here illegally.

Third is the political question. Will describes the change in our citizenship practices as a "simple reform," but it would be anything but simple. The political mobilization required to get Congress to effect such a change would be huge, and it would be immediately challenged and the Supreme Court would make the ultimate decision. Such a herculean effort would mean we weren't spending that political capital on efforts to limit illegal immigration in the first place, so we'd end up with continued large flows of illegal immigration, except the children those illegals have here would be, what — U.S.-born illegal aliens? Does anyone think that after five or ten years of that, Congress wouldn't just relent in the face of endless stories about little Bobby who won the science fair but can't become president even though he was born here? Then, all that political effort will have been wasted.

Worse yet, there are a lot of libertarian open-borders supporters who'd agree on the citizenship change, and so they'd jiu jitsu restrictionists by agreeing to the change as a way of continuing mass legal and illegal immigration. (This may be what Will has in mind when he writes that changing citizenship rules "would drain some scalding steam from immigration arguments that may soon again be at a roiling boil.") This is similar to what happened in 1996, when Sen. Spencer Abraham and other mass immigration supporters deflected attention and effort from the measures that would have modestly reduced legal immigration (endorsed by Barbara Jordan's bipartisan Commission on Immigration Reform) by emphasizing instead measures to cut certain legal immigrants off certain welfare programs. It was a successful political trick (not least because some restrictionists fell for it), killing the legal-immigration cuts but resulting in no reduction in the gap between native and immigrant welfare use, as Congress rolled back some cuts, states picked up the slack, and immigrants naturalized to retain welfare eligibility.

On the other hand, if that same political effort were directed at limiting illegal immigration in the first place, then the citizenship rules wouldn't matter as much because there just wouldn't be that many illegal aliens giving birth here.

In other words, the problem of U.S.-citizen children born to illegal aliens is a symptom of excessive illegal immigration, not a cause. In a sense, it's parallel to the left's Cold War mania for arms control — so long as the Soviet Union existed, arms control agreements were meaningless because Moscow had no intention of complying. Once the USSR ended up in the ash-heap of history, arms control agreements were rendered irrelevant because the Russians were no longer trying to take over the world.

It just makes more sense to render our citizenship practices politically irrelevant in this context by limiting illegal immigration in the first place. That's what "would drain some scalding steam from immigration arguments."