Birthright Citizenship is an American Institution

September 3, 2015

By Phoenix, Arizona Mayor Greg Stanton (D)

Over 150 years ago, our nation was more divided than we could ever imagine today. The country had just ended the bloodiest war in American history. As the healing process was slowly beginning, it was clear that just abolishing slavery was not enough.

For the states to be truly united again, wise leaders at the time determined that all Americans needed equal protection under the law. From that wisdom was born the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

Guaranteeing fairness, justice and equality for all people in the eyes of the law, the 14th Amendment has become the cornerstone of our nation’s values. But those values are under attack.

Politicians more concerned with grabbing headlines than having a meaningful conversation on immigration reform have turned their sights – followed by the media’s glare – onto the issue of birthright citizenship. The Trumpification of the Republican presidential primary has turned an accepted pillar of American constitutionalism into a partisan attack line.

Immigrants have been an essential part of our nation’s fabric throughout its history, and will be the key to our economic future in diverse cities like Phoenix and beyond. But they are also easy targets for politicians who traffic in the politics of fear.

Let’s be clear: there is no ambiguity about the 14th amendment. It explicitly grants citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” and prohibits states from denying any person "life, liberty or property, without due process of law" or to "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” And in United States v. Wong Kim Ark in 1898, the Supreme Court affirmed birthright citizenship by ruling that children born in the U.S. from non-citizens automatically obtain citizenship.

Donald Trump and the other GOP candidates are callously distracting the public from the real debate the nation deserves -- how to strengthen our country through common-sense comprehensive immigration reform.

Immigrants make our communities and our economy stronger. Of the country’s nearly 5 million businesses, immigrants own and operate one of every five. Immigrants are 30 percent more likely to start a business than native-born Americans. And immigrants or children of immigrants don’t just own businesses, they are literally titans of industry, having founded 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies. Big brands like Google, Goldman Sachs, Kraft and Kohl’s were all founded by immigrants.

In Phoenix – just like in the nearly 100 other municipalities in the Cities United For Immigration Action coalition pushing for reform – we have seen the benefits of birthright citizenship firsthand. A child of undocumented parents, George Torres is a war veteran of three tours in the Middle East and still serving in Germany. His brother, Francisco Torres Jr. recently opened his own barbershop near Downtown Phoenix.  Their sister, Tania Torres Marquez, born in Mexico but brought to the U.S. at two-weeks-old, owns a successful marketing and public relations firm.
Denying rightful and legally protected citizenship to children born in this country would stifle economic growth at a time when we can least afford it.

Not only would ending birthright citizenship hurt all Americans, it would also be logistically and financially unrealistic. The costs associated with thousands of trials, administrative proceedings, and the massive bureaucracy that would have to be developed would add an entirely new layer to the government – a fact that is conveniently ignored by the supposedly small-government conservative candidates leading the charge.

And what would become of the 4.5 million U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants?

They are Americans. This is the only country they know. They wouldn’t just leave  because their Constitutional rights have been stripped. They would, however, be more likely relegated to the shadows like so many other undocumented immigrants, making them less likely to receive a quality education or start a business. Their citizenship is a great incentive to be productive members of their communities.

Political campaigns spawn rigorous debate. That’s inevitable. Truth be told, immigration reform ought to be a front-and-center issue throughout the presidential election. But as we debate what sensible reform looks like, we need to focus more on how to uphold the American values enshrined in the 14th Amendment and less on demagoguery that threatens the foundation and future of our nation.

Stanton has been Phoenix’s mayor since 2012.