Current Debates

Birthright Citizenship: Who should be an American?


The United States is one of two advanced industrial nations (the other is Canada) to automatically confer citizenship on any baby born within its boundaries, including babies born to undocumented immigrants. In other words, any baby born on American soil is automatically a citizen of the United States, regardless of the citizenship of the parents.

This policy is based on the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed shortly after the Civil War, which says “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.”

The amendment was intended to guarantee the citizenship rights of ex-slaves. The qualification that these citizens must be “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States excluded American Indians (who were seen, at the time, as being subject to the jurisdiction of their tribes and were not granted citizenship rights until the 1920s) and the children of foreign diplomats and visitors from other nations.

Birthright citizenship is one of the many issues that split public opinion and generate the emotional debates that emerge whenever immigration is discussed. Is this too broad a definition? Does this policy make sense? What are the costs of maintaining it? Do undocumented immigrants take advantage of this inclusive definition? What message would be sent by repealing it? What are people really saying when they speak about issues like this? 

Two points of view are presented on these questions.  Once you have examined the points of view, turn to the “Debate Questions to Consider” and respond to the issues raised. Your instructor may request that you respond to these questions individually or as part of a group or class discussion.  



The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)

FAIR is a lobbying group that works to change national immigration policy and reduce level of immigration. FAIR argues that the policy of birthright citizenship creates a drain on U.S. taxpayers and that the babies of unauthorized immigrants add unjustly to an already heavy tax burden.  

To access this selection:

  • Go to
  • Type “birthright citizenship” in the Search box in the upper-right-hand-window of their home page and click the arrow to the right of the box.
  • Click “Birthright Citizenship (2010)” in the list.
  • While reading the article, pay special attention to their main points, the data cited, and the summary “What does this mean?”


The Migration Policy Institute (MPI)

MPI, an “independent, nonpartisan nonprofit think tank dedicated to the study of the movement of people worldwide,” sponsored a study to examine some of the consequences of ending the practice of automatic citizenship.  The authors of the study argue that repeal would create a large, permanent class of marginalized people, aliens to both the United States and to the native country of their ancestors. In effect, this group would be stateless, without full citizenship rights, and easily exploited.

To access this selection:

  • Go to
  • Type “birthright citizenship” in the Search box in the upper-right-hand-window of their home page and click the “Search” button.
  • Find and click “The Demographic Impacts of Repealing Birthright Citizenship” in the list of sources that appear and then click “Download Brief” to access the article
  • Read the Summary of the article and take special note of sections I and II and the Conclusion (Section VI). Read enough of the rest of the article so that you have a feel for the nature and content of the argument being presented. Pay special attention to the data they present

OPTIONAL: Conduct your own Internet search for information and sources on birthright citizenship. Avoid obviously partisan arguments and look especially for scholarly articles written by sociologists and other social scientists, perhaps using search engines such as Proquest or Google Scholar.  Review and evaluate these sources. What information and perspectives do they add to the debate? What kinds of empirical evidence do they use to support their arguments?



  • Chapter 1 opened with some questions about what it means to be an American. How does the debate over birthright citizenship relate to this larger issue? How would each of the Americans introduced in “Some American Stories” react to this debate? Can you predict their positions? How? Is there a way of assessing the arguments that might go beyond mere partisanship? Both articles cite facts and evidence. Which are most convincing? Why?


  • Can you relate these articles to some of the concepts introduced in this chapter? For example, where and how are these concepts used: inequality, power, prejudice, and racism? How does gender shape this debate? Would changing policy on birthright citizenship affect men and women equally? Why or why not? Can you think of some ways in which this debate has different implications for men and women?


  • The articles for this exercise were located by searching the Internet. What are some of the dangers of doing “research” this way? How can you protect yourself against these threats? What would you want to know about these authors and their respective organizations as you assess their ideas? How could you find out?


  • Finally, after reading this chapter and considering these opinions, what are your views on the issue of birthright citizenship? Were you aware of the issue before reading these materials? Had you formed an opinion? If so, has your opinion changed? Why or why not? If the issue is new for you, what are your reactions? Either way, what else would you like to know about the issue? What questions occur to you? How could you answer them?