To people who live in one place all their lives, who never move from one country to another, the question of citizenship hardly occurs.
It is barely a question at all, to them. Instead, citizenship is a right freely given, a gift happily offered and accepted without challenge. Citizenhood is, in other words, conceived of as a kind of birth right, the political reward of experiencing geographical fortune.
This view accords nicely with the settled lives some lead. But legally, this picture is not accurate. For the inhabitants of most states, the right of citizenship is not afforded to all born on certain soil; rather, citizenship is determined exclusively with reference to other variables, including descent. The daughter of Bolivian tourists born in a London train station does not become British by that fact alone.
In America, however, citizenship can be afforded by location alone. American soil confers American citizenship, a right known as jus soli. That child of Bolivians born between ticket office and platform could, if the scene were transported to Grand Central Station, call herself an American with ease – at least theoretically.
Legally, this situation is unusual; only about thirty countries similar arrangement, and birth-right citizenship (as Americans call it) says rather a lot about those states which do.
It says rather a lot about America. Birthright citizenship says that though America welcomes legal immigration and is pleased, as other nations are, to extend the honour of citizenship to those willing to be naturalised, it is also a nation whose mere territory holds special power to confer inherent, unabridgable rights to those born within its bounds.
This was codified in the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. The first clause of the amendment not only guaranteed the citizenship of those who had held it before, but also extended that right to slaves and their descendants, and protected all from the deprivation of ‘life, liberty, or property, without due process of law’.
One cannot find fault with all that this implies.
But one man who can is president of the United States. Donald Trump is hardly alone. The amendment was the subject of feverish discussion before it was ratified after the American Civil War, and has been bitterly opposed in some quarters ever since. Contemporary opposition to citizenship of the soil holds that it is an engine of immigration, and an inducement to illegal migration.
Part of this is born of a reaction to long-voiced conservative criticisms of immigration to America, including such popinjays as ‘chain migration’, ‘anchor babies’, and the debate around the disputed citizenship and residency status of children who were brought to the United States illegally, those affected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy.
Donald Trump’s announcement could therefore be viewed as a sop to this perspective, in line with other tactics employed to emphasise migration a week before this year’s mid-term elections.
Republican discussion of the ‘migrant caravan’ slowly winding its way across the American continent has a similar tone and comparable intent. And Trump’s plan to do away with birthright citizenship, if it is ever put into action, could likely not be achieved by his proposed method of issuing an executive order. Paul Ryan, for now still the Speaker of the House of Representatives, says, of that plan, ‘you obviously cannot do that’.
Other opponents of jus soli have intentions which are more in line with deeper ideology than political expediency. They wish to confer citizenship not by geography, but by descent. They want a nation united not by soil, but by blood.
One of them, Steve King, was formerly a fringe Republican figure who has found small relevance. He is a man who has directly stated that, in his view, the United States cannot sustain itself and its civilisation with those he calls ‘other people’s babies’. King has been actively campaigning against birthright citizenship for years, introducing a bill to that effect in the House of Representatives in 2015.
Even hinting at adopting their favoured policy, and even in unserious ways advanced for transparently transient reasons, assists these people in what they could see as their ever-onward march into acceptable opinion and power.
Citizenship afforded by jus soli is uncommon among nations. What it represents is also uncommon, and worth defending.
It is a statement of national intent that someone like my maternal grandmother – a daughter of Sheffield who was born in Detroit – held the right to American citizenship, despite living less than a year of her life in the country.
For some, the uniqueness of this system of citizenship bolsters American claims to exceptionalism, and to the beleaguered values of its foundation, which could gain much and lose nothing in being applied to everyone – no matter their temporary status – born on American soil.
Birthright citizenship is a statement of intent as a nation, and a declaration of faith. It guarantees the status of all who live within its borders, and centres on the idea of individual worth built of common humanity, divorced from the shackles of ancestry.
To seek to abridge these rights, to reconstitute a concept of American citizenship which was originally meant to afford personhood to a captive population, seems a dangerous path to travel, and a dark trick to play.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.