Saturday, August 14, 2010

More on Birthright Citizenship

Yale law professor Peter Schuck has a thoughtful op-ed in the New York Times about birthright citizenship.  I agree with his sentiment that "[t]his question is much harder than the zealots on both sides suggest."  While there is something incongruous about granting birthright citizenship to a child whose parents snuck into the country in open violation of its immigration laws, we do not generally punish children for the sins of their parents.  This is a pickle, especially to the extent that allowing birthright citizenship gives people from poor countries a powerful incentive to come to our wealthy country and take advantage of our (relatively) generous welfare benefits.

But what parent wouldn't do this for their child, if they could?  It is pretty easy to justify committing the purely political crime of crossing a political border (i.e., an imaginary line) without papers if it means a better life for your children.  (In other words, Wendy Murphy's argument that illegal immigrants are using their children as a "thing" that they "barely love[]" is exactly wrong--to the extent that birthright citizenship motivates foreigners to come here to give birth, the motivating factor is the human desire to provide a better life for their children.  This is the purest love there is.)

Fear of strangers and foreigner cultures is an innate human characterisitc, I think.  But openness to immigration is, or has been, a uniquely American characteristic.  As Professor Schuck notes, illegal immigration and "anchor babies" were not problems foreseen when the 14th Amendment was ratified because "at the time, federal law didn’t limit immigration, so no parents were here illegally."  This was the regime in place when many of our ancestors arrived here.  We should be proud of this history, and have some humility about the circumstances that made us American citizens.  For must of us, we are American simply because we were born here.  And we were born here, many of us, only because our ancestors arrived when this country was taking all comers.  (For most of the rest of us, our ancestors arrived here when the country was taking all comers except racial and ethnic "undesirables"--a fact which necessitates its own kind of humility.)

I tend to take it on faith that immigrants are actually an unalloyed good for this country.  Immigrants--whether "illegal" or legal--are, by nature, industrious and willing to take risks.  So they have within them the stuff of Americans.  We should make immigration easier, not harder.  My view is that any immigrant has six weeks to get a job here, and if they get one then we should say "welcome to America, here are your papers."

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