CRS issues new report on the birthright citizenship debate

Birthright citizenship, the principle that most people physically born in the United States qualify as citizens, has been a subject of debate recently, with some legislators and Presidential candidates arguing that it should be ended or restricted. On Oct. 28, 2015, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) published a report on the subject.

The report, by Legislative Attorney Alexandra M. Wyatt, presents an overview of the legal debate on birthright citizenship and the issue of children born in the U.S. to alien parents. The report examines the historical development of birthright citizenship, early and modern litigation on the issue and the parameters of the modern legal debate.

The U.S. Constitution provides for birthright citizenship in the Fourteenth Amendment, which states that “[a]ll 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.” This is usually interpreted to mean that anyone born in the U.S. automatically becomes a U.S. citizen, even if their parents are undocumented immigrants, as the Supreme Court held in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, an 1898 case.

The CRS report details how many opponents of birthright citizenship favor a narrower interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Citizenship Clause, arguing that the term “jurisdiction” should mean “complete jurisdiction” in the sense of undivided allegiance and mutual consent of sovereign and subject. Some opponents of birthright citizenship also argue that Wong Kim Ark did not squarely address the question of whether the Citizenship Clause requires a broad view of jurisdiction.

Wyatt points out that since the early 1990s, bills have been introduced in Congress to deny citizenship to people born in the U.S. if their parents were not lawful residents. Whether such a statute would pass constitutional muster in the almost certain court challenge should such legislation become law would remain to be seen.