People born in the United States are American citizens, regardless of what President Trump claims. Birthright citizenship—enshrined by the Fourteenth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution—guarantees it.
Trump recently suggested to the contrary after a Newsweek column erroneously argued that vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris was not a “natural born citizen.” The assertion that Senator Harris is ineligible for the vice presidency based on her citizenship is an outright lie. This falsehood is steeped in a long, racist history of attempting to gatekeep who can and cannot be a U.S. citizen.
What Is Birthright Citizenship?
The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1868, following the American Civil War, is enshrined in U.S. history as the cornerstone of American civil rights, ensuring due process and equal protection under the law to all persons. Equally important, however, is the Fourteenth Amendment’s affirmation that all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to its jurisdiction are, in fact, U.S. citizens:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Most recently, pundits used the issue of birthright citizenship to challenge the legitimacy of both major parties’ candidates in the 2008 presidential election. Senator John McCain was born in 1936 on a U.S. military base in the Panama Canal Zone, where his father—a U.S. Naval officer—was posted, causing some to question whether McCain is a natural-born citizen. President Barack Obama was born to a U.S.-citizen mother and an immigrant father in Hawaii in 1961, two years after Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state. Even months into his presidency, some conspiracy theorists still question President Obama’s eligibility to serve.
But the question of who is entitled to U.S. citizenship is most often raised during debates over illegal immigration. While most of the discussion turns on the subject of who can become a citizen through legalization and naturalization, some groups argue that the way to end illegal immigration is to change the rules of the game by denying citizenship to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.
Each year, bills are introduced in Congress to deny U.S. citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants and, in some cases, the children of immigrants who are in the country on temporary visas. On May 29, 2009, Rep. Nathan Deal (R-9th/GA) re-introduced his “Birthright Citizenship Act” (HR 1868), which would deny birthright citizenship to children born in the United States to illegal, and even temporary, immigrants. Recently, there have been proposals to abolish birthright citizenship in Texas and California by state lawmakers, who hope to advance a national debate on the issue and push a legal challenge to the Supreme Court.
Rarely, however, does the immigration advocacy community explore the impact of the birthright citizenship debate as it relates to the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus, the Immigration Policy Center invited respected scholars and authors to provide a higher perspective on this perennial issue.
With limited exceptions, all people born within a U.S. territory automatically become an American citizen, regardless of the citizenship of their parents.
Birthright Citizenship and Immigration
The racist argument about Harris’ eligibility tries to create a distinction between a “natural born citizen” and a person born in the United States to immigrant parents. At the time of her birth in Oakland, California, Harris’ parents were immigrants. But their immigration status does not matter—birthright citizenship guaranteed her U.S. citizenship no matter her parents’ immigration status.
Attempts to restrict citizenship for Americans with immigrant parents—based on race alone—go back centuries. There are, unfortunately, far too many examples to name.
Less than two decades after the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, government officials argued that U.S.-born children of Chinese immigrants could not be considered citizens by birth.
The Chinese Exclusion Act, signed into law in 1882, barred the entry of almost all immigration from China. It simultaneously banned Chinese immigrants already living in the United States from becoming naturalized citizens, supposedly also disqualifying their American children from citizenship. The government saw Chinese people as “dirty” and “unfit” to be U.S. citizens.
Until the Supreme Court rejected this argument in 1898, Chinese Americans were not considered U.S. citizens in the eyes of the government.
President Trump’s History With Birthright Citizenship
Trump rose to political prominence—and infamy—in 2011, after claiming that President Obama was born in Kenya and ineligible for the presidency. He was perhaps the loudest high-profile figure to tout the racist “birther” conspiracy theory at the time and continued to push “birtherism” well into 2015.
It’s easy to draw a comparison between his claims about Obama then and Harris now. But Trump hasn’t limited his apparent disdain for birthright citizenship to these fringe theories.
The Trump administration threatened to abolish birthright citizenship by executive order in 2018. The president claimed he would end birthright citizenship by executive order to prevent the children of undocumented immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. The executive order, however, was never issued.
In August 2019, the Trump administration attacked birthright citizenship again. The administration released a policy that changed the way “U.S. residency” was defined for U.S. military members and government employees living overseas.
The policy announcement followed remarks from Trump that birthright citizenship was a “magnet” for undocumented immigration.
Under this change, children born abroad to U.S.-citizen servicemembers would not receive automatic citizenship. The policy received bipartisan backlash and got overturned by the passage of a law in March 2020.
The history of birthright citizenship shows that it can be weaponized to deny rights based on race and immigration status. The suggestion that Senator Harris cannot be vice president is a revival of this dangerous thinking. We cannot let this ideology take hold again in our country.