Birthright Citizenship in the Commonwealth vs. the United States

By David North on November 22, 2019

Here are two scenarios of how birthright citizenship plays out in different parts of the English-speaking world.

Scenario One: Chinese parents go to Guam to have their child. The child is born there, gets a U.S. passport, and leaves at the age of two weeks. Twenty years later, speaking not a word of English, he comes to the United States; 15 years after that, at the age of 35, is he eligible to become president of the United States?

Scenario Two: Parents from Portugal are in Bermuda and have a male child in 1976; making him a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies; in 2013 he was given indefinite leave to remain (i.e., sort of a green card status) in Bermuda; he marries a woman born in the Philippines who acquires British Overseas Territories citizenship. Can this couple adopt, and bring to Bermuda, her teenage niece who is a Philippines citizen?

The answer in the first instance — a hypothetical — is yes. He also has all the other rights of full U.S. citizenship and does not need to go through the naturalization process.

The answer in the second instance — a real situation brought before the law lords (or the Judicial Committee of Britain's Privy Council) — is no. The man in the case, Barbosa (whose first name is not shared with us), despite his birth in Bermuda, and despite the various British citizenships that the couple have, is not a Bermudian under Bermuda law, and thus is not eligible to make the adoption.

I bring this up for two reasons: Substantively, it shows how the black-and-white U.S. birthright citizenship rules compare to the much more complex and nuanced ones of the Brits on this subject, and it allows me to write about the law lords, one of the oddest and most interesting political institutions in the world.

On the second point, the law lords are part-timers; the day job for most of them is as members of the United Kingdom's Supreme Court; the titles of lord and lady go with the job, as they are lifetime members of the House of Lords. The law lords take appeals from a variety of independent nations that used to be part of the British Empire; various colonies of the UK, such as Bermuda; crown dependencies, such as Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man; and sometimes from vestigial British institutions, such as the Court of Admiralty of the Cinque Ports.

The law lords, formally, have only advisory roles to the queen, so their decisions routinely end modesty, as in the case of this Bermudian (or near-Bermudian), Barbosa: "For all of these reasons the Board [i.e., the law lords] will humbly advise Her Majesty that this appeal must be dismissed."

British monarchs for centuries have faithfully followed the board's advice.

The lower courts in Bermuda ruled against Barbosa, and he appealed that decision to the law lords, who routinely sit in London. The ruling was in favor of the minister of Home Affairs, a member of the Bermudian cabinet.

The judges ruled, in effect, that simply being a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies was not sufficient to give him adoption rights under Bermuda law; he also had to "belong to Bermuda" under local legislation, and he did not qualify for that status. The decision of the five-member panel was unanimous and Lord Kitchin and Lord Sales jointly wrote the opinion.

This all reflects a decision made long ago that while citizens of the colonies were to have some kind of British citizenship, they (including the millions in Hong Kong) were not to be given a comprehensive type of citizenship that would allow them to migrate to the UK.

Barbosa, and his wife's niece, thus fell between the cracks on this issue.

With the United States, people on the mainland (plus Hawaii and Alaska) always were much, much more numerous than those in our island territories, so there was no major force preventing full U.S. citizenship from being granted to those living in most of our island territories.

There is a minor exception: People born in American Samoa are U.S. nationals at birth rather than citizens. They have complete freedom to migrate to the mainland, but cannot vote here unless they go through a naturalization process. Creating a class of nationals, rather than citizens, fit neatly with a long-ago decision of Congress to give American Samoa control over its own immigration policies, a practice that continues to this day. (The general idea was to protect the Samoans from massive arrivals of aliens under the mainland immigration laws over which the Samoans had no control.)

American Samoa went through its own amnesty of illegal aliens five years ago, as we reported at the time.

Some residents of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands have, or have had, a choice to become nationals, but few, if any, took up that option.

The full 20-page text of the Barbosa judgment, "The Minister of Home Affairs and another (Respondents) v Barbosa (Appellant) (Bermuda)", handed down on November 11 can be seen here.

Brits (and islanders) also have the opportunity to watch the entire hearings on their computer screens; they are very civil and very long. The morning session on June 13 can be seen here and the afternoon session here.

I can not visualize our Supremes spending an entire day dealing with a case involving one adoption. Full TV coverage of the U.S. Supreme Court hearings in the States is something of the future, not the present.