There’s no place like home

There’s no place like home
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Lost in last month’s heroic drama rescuing the Thai youth soccer team is that three of the boys and their coach are stateless individuals; that is, they have no citizenship papers from any country. While they were trapped in the cave, it was the least of their problems. As their lives begin to return to a new normal, the obstacles of their statelessness are compounding their challenges.  

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a stateless child is born every 10 minutes somewhere in the world. UNHCR estimates that at least 10 million people in the world are stateless and subject to severe consequences. Stateless people typically are denied the protections of the laws of the nation, limited in their access to labor markets, and restricted from the social safety net. Jacqueline Bhabha, professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, concludes that being stateless as a child can stunt opportunity, erode ambition and destroy the sense of self-worth.

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In this context of an emerging crisis of stateless children, why would anyone propose legal and policy changes that would exacerbate statelessness?  

Those who argue that the United States should end birthright citizenship are doing just that. Recently, Michael Anton, who had been a national security adviser to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump threatens ex-intel official's clearance, citing comments on CNN Protesters topple Confederate monument on UNC campus Man wanted for threatening to shoot Trump spotted in Maryland MORE, published an editorial arguing against birthright citizenship. Grounded in the Constitution, birthright citizenship is automatically granted to any individual born within and subject to the jurisdiction of the United States. As a candidate, Donald Trump suggested ending birthright citizenship, labeling it the “biggest magnet for illegal immigration.” An excellent series of editorials debating the matter has ensued, largely centered on legal issues.

Beyond the legal debate lies the policy crisis that would unfold if the United States abandoned birthright citizenship: Ending birthright citizenship would place an undue burden on U.S. citizens as they scramble to obtain appropriate government documents to establish that they are U.S. citizens. Children of citizens as well as children of foreign nationals would run the risk of becoming stateless.

As respected immigration attorney Margaret Stock has noted, most U.S. citizens rely on the birthright citizenship rule to establish their citizenship. A birth certificate from a jurisdiction in the United States is all one needs currently. Each U.S. state has its own unique registry of births, and most vital statistic records are kept at the county level. These local birth registries do not verify the citizenship of the child’s parents.

Equally critical, a birth certificate is the linchpin of all other state and federal government identity documents. It is required for state-issued driver’s licenses and state ID cards, as well as federally-issued Social Security cards and passports. If a birth certificate issued by a local jurisdiction in the United States no longer establishes that the person is a U.S. citizen, what would be the qualifying document?

At this time, a passport is the only document the U.S. government issues that confirms both the individual’s identity and citizenship. Fewer than half (46 percent) of U.S. citizens have passports.  A 2006 survey sponsored by the Brennan Center at New York University estimated that more than 13 million U.S. adults lacked readily available documentation of citizenship, and a birth certificate was one of the documents included as proof.

Imagine the steps new parents would have to go through to establish their child’s citizenship if birthright citizenship were abandoned. Expectant mothers would need to pack their passport or a bundle of identification documents in the overnight bag readied for the baby’s delivery.

These bureaucratic hurdles would be particularly onerous for low-income citizens or citizens living in rural or geographically underserved areas. The Brennan Center survey also found that citizens earning less than $25,000 per year are more than twice as likely to lack ready documentation of their citizenship as those earning more than $25,000. If a birth certificate no longer would be proof of citizenship, this disparity would rise substantially. Such citizens might find themselves stateless because they would not be able to acquire the documents needed to establish U.S. citizenship.

UNHCR cites three major causes of statelessness: discrimination, gaps in nationality laws, and lack of birth registrations. Would the political leaders who oppose birthright citizenship support the establishment and funding of a federal system of birth registration that provided citizenship documents to all U.S. citizen children?

Opponents of birthright citizenship may have their eyes set on the children of unauthorized migrants, but the impact would be equally acute on the children of U.S. citizens who do not have the wherewithal to maneuver the bureaucracy to acquire citizenship documents.

Ruth Ellen Wasem is a clinical professor of policy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, the University of Texas in Austin. For more than 25 years, she was a domestic policy specialist at the U.S. Library of Congress’ Congressional Research Service. She has testified before Congress about asylum policy, legal immigration trends, human rights and the push-pull forces on unauthorized migration. She is writing a book about the legislative drive to end race- and nationality-based immigration.