The Trump administration’s quest to end “birthright” citizenship is not only unconstitutional and immoral, it defies our history and the lessons that mass citizenship-strippers have taught us time and again in other parts of the world. After nearly a decade spent defending the right to citizenship all over the globe, the tactics are all too familiar.
Contrary to President Donald Trump’s statements on Tuesday, people acquire citizenship by birth on the territory (jus soli) in more than 30 countries around the world. We call this “birthright” citizenship in the United States, but all citizenship attributed at birth could be described as a birthright, whether we follow a rule of soil or descent. President Trump frequently depicts the country he leads as the “laughing stock” of the world, reserving particular vitriol for longstanding policies and norms that don’t on their face tell a story of naked national self-interest benefiting a one-dimensional, privileged and predominantly white subset of the population. The United States is no victim; we have not been duped. Our citizenship rule is extraordinary though: It is an inspiring investment in the inherent dignity and worth of each person and the idea of civic solidarity.
Similar restrictions to those now proposed by Trump have been enacted in law or in practice in other countries, like the Dominican Republic, the United Kingdom, Myanmar and Cote d’Ivoire. These moves to strip citizenship from certain groups have led to scandal, drawn international and domestic outrage, undermined institutions and stoked conflict and endless strife. Reforms to citizenship laws are often applied retroactively, affecting generations of individuals who believed their citizenship to be secure and exponentially expanding the wake of destroyed lives such reforms leave behind them.
The Dominican Republic, for example, is a case study in a creeping, racist political strategy to turn citizens into deportable migrants.
Powerful politicians sought to ostracize and exile members of the main minority ethnic group in the country – people of Haitian descent – and, in doing so, consolidating political power through the exploitation of society’s basest prejudices. They started with low-level denials of identity documents, internal circulars and centralized case file reviews, which left more and more people undocumented and without a secure citizenship.
A 2013 ruling — La Sentencia — finally crystalized into law the previous years of prejudicial practices and stripped thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship dating back to 1929. It touched off an international uproar, but it also spurred a domestic crisis. The outrageous denationalization decision proposed no alternative legal status for the many thousands affected by the ruling. The ensuing human rights and humanitarian crisis simmers unresolved to this day.
The irony is that the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1868, was designed to heal a nation torn apart by civil war and its previous horrific disregard for the equality of all people. Through an inclusive jus soli citizenship, we refused to debase innocent children and sided with our better angels. Rolling back citizenship rights today would invite a destabilizing uncertainty into our democratic process, which is already under unprecedented strain.
The application of a such a sweeping reform would also inevitably leave untold numbers of American citizens at risk of exclusion due to their inability to prove entitlement to U.S. citizenship. In the present environment, it is easy to imagine how such loopholes could be abused to further manipulate and control access to power and privilege in the country. These dynamics lead to an electoral cycle marred by favor-trading for access to political participation for outcast communities. We have seen how other countries’ elites use citizenship laws for partisan political gain. In Kenya, for example, minority communities like the Nubians have long faced unlawful pressures to vote as a block in exchange for access to identity documents to which they are already entitled.
Ending automatic jus soli would be the first disastrous step toward a future United States where millions swell the ranks of a disenfranchised class of legal outcasts. We have lived this ghastly reality before and our Constitution’s Citizenship Clause reflects a critical part of our ongoing collective reckoning. We pretend otherwise at our own peril, and it is a national disgrace that our president is the pretender-in-chief.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks to the media about birthright citizenship before departing on Marine One at the White House on October 31. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images