Skip to navigation

Skip to main content

Migration News

contact us

January 1996, Volume 3, Number 1

Congress Debates Jus Soli

On December 13, 1995, two Congressional subcommittees held a hearing on proposals to deny US citizenship to the children of illegal aliens born in the US. House Immigration Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) invited eight House members and former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan to testify for and against the possibility of constitutional amendments or changes in federal immigration law to curtail the benefits of citizenship to illegal immigrants.

The US Constitution contained no definition of citizenship until the adoption of the 14th Amendment in 1868. It states: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the state wherein they reside."

The 14th Amendment has been interpreted to mean that all persons born in the US--except children born to parents not subject to the jurisdiction of the US because they are diplomats or representatives of international organizations-- are automatically US citizens. In 1898, the US Supreme Court ruled that a child born in San Francisco to Chinese parents who could not become citizens themselves was automatically a US citizen.

According to Rep. Lamar Smith(R-TX), "The original intent and purpose of the 14th Amendment was not to grant birthright citizenship."

Rep. Brian Bilbray, (R-CA) sponsored H.R. 1363, the "Citizenship Reform Act of 1995, which "would deny automatic citizenship at birth to children born in the United States to parents who are not citizens or permanent resident aliens."

According to Bilbray, the bill would reinterpret the Constitution, an approach that would be faster than a Constitutional amendment. The Justice Department has said that such a change would not be in keeping with US constitutional history and tradition. If the bill were enacted, no discretion could be exercised by public officials on the questions, the department maintains. Another bill, introduced by Sonny Callahan (R-AL) would also deny citizenship to the children of legal immigrants.

The emotional hearing featured testimony of opponents, such as Rep. Jose E. Serranno (D-NY), who said that the bills were "a reaction to little brown babies that simply aren't welcome here." The hearing was dominated by Californians who are concerned about he impact illegal immigration has on the state. In 1992, undocumented immigrants gave birth to 92,000 babies in California under the Medi-Cal program, making such births 40 percent of the 237,000 publicly funded births in the state.

Proponents of change say that such a situation was not imaginable in 1868; opponents say changing the 14th amendment affects core American values-- birthright citizenship.

Bilbray argued that it is unfair to offer generous health and welfare benefits to the children of illegal immigrants: "The gift of citizenship is the greatest gift we can bestow. To give it to those who break the law is an insult to every legal immigrant."

Commission on Immigration Reform Chair Barbara Jordan countered that: "To deny birthright citizenship is to derail the engine of American liberty."

In a study of 38 countries, the Center for Immigration Studies found that 13 --including Mexico, Canada, Brazil and Spain-- grant citizenship based on place of birth. Twenty-five require also that at least one parent be a citizen or of that country's ethnicity, and six of the twenty-five specify whether it is to be the mother or the father who provides the link.

Jonathan P. Decker, "Lawmakers Look to Revoke Automatic Citizenship Law," Christian Science Monitor, December 27, 1995; Christi Harlan, "Congress talks of new limits on citizenship," Austin American-Statesman, December 14, 1995. Amy Bayer, "Congress debates revoking automatic citizenship birthright," San Diego Union-Tribune, December 14, 1995. Gretchen Parker, "House panels debate birthright citizenship," Houston Chronicle, December 14, 1995. Neil Lewis, "Bill Seeks to End Automatic Citizenship for all born in the US," New York Times, December 14, 1995.