The provision of the Fourteenth Amendment to the American Constitution that appears to (see Posner’s discussion for why I say “appears to”) guarantee all children born in the United States automatic citizenship applies not only to children born to parents who are in this country illegally, but also to students, tourists, and others who are in the country on temporary visas. Yet most of the anger felt about giving citizenship to all children born here is directed at children of illegal immigrants.
This is partly due to the illegality of the presence of their parents in the US, and partly to the evidence that some women cross the Mexico-US border, or come from other countries, just to have their children become Americans. The hostility is also fueled by the apparently correct belief that children born of illegal parents are a significant contributor to the total number of births in the United States. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that about 8% of all children born in the US in 2008 have parents who are in the country illegally. This is about double the estimated percent of the US population that are here illegally. Although it is not possible to know how accurate these estimates are, one would expect Mexican immigrants to have relatively many children, even if the children did not automatically become citizens, since these immigrants tend to be younger and less educated than the typical American. Extensive studies would be necessary before one could know how many of the children of illegal immigrants were born here because of the guarantee of American citizenship.
Some members of Congress and others have proposed a constitutional amendment to eliminate the granting of citizenship to children born in the United States without at least one parent who is a citizen or has a green card. Clearly, they are mainly concerned about excluding from citizenship children born to illegal immigrants. Yet since their ultimate concern is the level of illegal immigration, denying citizenship to the children of these immigrants would be a roundabout and very imperfect way of discouraging illegal immigration.
It is highly unlikely that most of the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States will ever be forced to return to Mexico, or wherever else they came from. Most likely is that they will either eventually be given amnesty, and hence citizenship, or they will become permanent residents without citizenship, but with many of the rights of citizens. These include the right to receive medical care in hospitals, and to send their children to American public schools. Under either of these scenarios, it will not make a big difference whether children of illegal immigrants born in the US did or did not automatically become citizens since they would de facto have most of the rights of citizens.
I favor generous legal immigration since legal immigrants of different skill levels add a lot to a country’s human capital (see my proposal to sell the right to immigrate discussed in the June 25 issue of The Economist). However, I oppose illegal immigration because it corrupts the whole immigration system, and it is unfair to the millions of persons who wait for years to immigrate to this country legally. Probably, little can, or should, be done to greatly reduce the number of illegal immigrants already here. However, it is very feasible to reduce the inflow of additional illegal immigrants, while at the same time increasing the number of legal immigrants.
Finding an effective way to curtail the inflow of illegal immigrants seems to be a far better way to deal with the issue of illegal immigrants than concentrating a lot of effort and opposition on trying to obtain a constitutional amendment that eliminates the right to citizenship of children born in America to parents who are not American citizens.