February 2, 2012
by, Eric Liu
Ever since the ratification of the 14th Amendment, the rule in the United States has generally been that if you are born here, you are a citizen. In recent months, though, congressional Republicans like Steve King have called for an end to birthright citizenship. They’ve been fixated on people who immigrate illegally (usually, in the telling, from Mexico) to have a so-called “anchor baby” on American soil, allowing a whole clan to claw its way into citizenship.
Put aside for now the way “anchor baby” has become as mean-spirited a meme as “welfare queen” once was. Put aside the consensus among most legal scholars that an end to birthright citizenship would require not an act of Congress but a repeal of Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment. Put aside, even, the powerful stories of people like Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-winning journalist and recently admitted undocumented immigrant whose DefineAmerican.com project has given voice to many other former “anchor babies.”
All of this begs a question: Why should citizenship be a matter of birth? The premise held by those who want to end birthright citizenship is that some people deserve it and some do not – that the status shouldn’t be handed out automatically. Frankly, that’s a premise worth considering.
What if being born here counted for exactly nothing? How would you earn citizenship if it weren’t given conferred by the accident of birth? To put it more sharply: What if, in order to earn citizenship, Americans whose families have been here for generations were subject to the very same requirements as newcomers?
As it stands now, those of us who are lucky enough to be citizens by birth don’t have to do much. Very little is asked of us. But let’s imagine what the content of our citizenship might look like if everyone had to earn it.