Birthright Citizenship Report Sparks Debate

By Jessica M. Vaughan on April 7, 2011

Last week I appeared on a CNN news program to discuss our recent report on the national security implications of the U.S. practice of granting citizenship to the children of foreign temporary visitors. This is related to, but distinct from the issue of citizenship for the children of illegal aliens.

Beneficiaries of this practice include the children of so-called "birth tourists", such as the women found in the maternity halfway house for Chinese mothers that was recently discovered in San Gabriel, Calif. They also include the children of foreign students, guestworkers, residents of Mexico with Border Crossing Cards, and those who enter through the regular B-2 tourist visa and visa-waiver programs. We assume that most of these individuals are raised in the country of their parents, although some may end up living here permanently, if their parents later obtain green cards or remain here as illegal aliens. Some will be sent back to the U.S. for schooling (a common practice for families in some Asian countries) and others may keep their U.S. passports current for vacations and in case they need the services of the U.S. embassy, such as evacuation in the event of unrest.

The report noted the case of Anwar al Awlaki, the radical Yemeni cleric and spiritual advisor to a number of terrorists, who is a U.S. citizen, born while his Yemeni father was here attending graduate school.

Some proponents of open borders have criticized us for raising what they consider to be the tabloid-esque specter of what they call "terror babies" (a spin-off of "anchor babies," the pejorative term for the U.S. born children of illegal aliens). One sputtering blog features a picture of a baby with an Amish beard superimposed. What is it about this subject that causes such fear among open-borders proponents that they cannot engage in civil dialogue, but feel the need instead to resort to demagoguery and ad hominem attacks?

But the fact is, currently no one knows just how many people in the world obtained American citizenship because their mother gave birth while present as a temporary visitor. Our report calculated from immigration statistics and fertility rates of recently arrived foreign-born women that it could be almost as high as 200,000 per year, which is higher than we expected, and certainly subject to discussion and further analysis.

The State Department does not keep track. It makes an effort to register and count the number of American citizens living abroad, but this population includes the many U.S.-raised citizens who live and work abroad as well as the offspring of previous foreign visitors.

The National Vital Statistics System of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention counts all birth certificates issued in the United States, and collects extensive demographic data on the parents and the birth, but does not collect information on the immigration status of the mother.

All state governments, which have the primary responsibility of recording births in this country, ask the mother to report on the birth certificate application where she resides. In recent years roughly 7,300 mothers indicated they resided outside of the United States. Some journalists have mistakenly reported this number as a proxy for the total number of "birth tourism" children, and concluded that this is a very small problem. But those engaged in birth tourism are likely to stay at a hotel, with a relative, or perhaps in a residence like the one discovered in California, and then go to the hospital when it is time to give birth. It seems very likely that a large fraction of these women would give that U.S. address, which is where the child's birth certificate will be sent, not their overseas address. Thus, the self-reported residence information on birth certificate applications, which states make no attempt to verify, is not a good proxy for the level of birth tourism.

Moreover, birth tourism is only a sub-category of births to temporary visitors. Many of these mothers reside in the United States for several years on student, guest worker, or exchange visas or are the spouses of men with that status. These mothers will almost certainly report their U.S. address on a birth certificate application, rather than their previous foreign address. Other mothers who are here on tourist visas, Border Crossing Cards, or who entered under the Visa Waiver Program might also provide a U.S. address, out of concern that providing a foreign address would draw attention to their temporary status.

Finally, what most people forget or do not realize is that the total number of foreign temporary visitors is very large, perhaps as large as the number of legal and illegal immigrants combined. DHS estimates the size of the resident non-immigrant population to be nearly two million. In addition, there are roughly 35 million short-term visits (not people) per year and roughly 9 million Mexicans hold Border Crossing Cards. A significant share of these people stay here for several months. Even if only a very small fraction of these are women who enter for the purpose of obtaining U.S. citizenship for their newborn child, or who happen to have a child while living here, the result is still a large number of individuals who have American citizenship but who lack a genuine connection to our country. In addition, these individuals can transmit U.S. citizenship to their children. To suggest that this phenomenon is not worthy of discussion is to suggest that American citizenship has lost its meaning.