Frontera Fund News

Birthright Citizenship, Fear and the Myth of Anchor Babies


On August 24, 2015, the stock market fell off a cliff. The reason: fear over China’s market. Everyone knows that fearing the stock market will drop makes the stock market drop, yet the cycle of fear keeps on spinning.

Meanwhile, the fear over birthright citizenship cycled around again too. A certain comb-overed presidential candidate who does not deserve more publicity proposed that the U.S. should “end birthright citizenship.” Several other candidates – including Rick Santorum, Scott Walker, and arguable “anchor baby” Bobby Jindal – jumped on the bandwagon.

We’ve been here before. It started in the 1860s, when the government was debating what would become the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted birthright citizenship to slaves and their children.

Senator Edgar Cowan

Senator Edgar Cowan

Senator Edgar Cowan of Pennsylvania expressed fears that could have been voiced in 2015, if you replace “Chinese” with “Latinos”:

“[I]s it proposed that the people of California are to remain quiescent while they are overrun by a flood of immigration…? Are they to be immigrated out of house and home by Chinese?… [I]f another people, of different religion, of different manners, of different traditions, different tastes and sympathies are to… double or treble the population of California, I ask, are the people of California powerless to protect themselves?”

Cowan’s fellow politicians basically said, “Deal with it.” The Fourteenth Amendment was adopted in 1868. And today Chinese people make up an un-scary 1 percent of California’s population.

These days, it’s “anchor babies” that have people shaking in their shoes. An estimated 300,000 babies are born each year in the U.S. to undocumented immigrants (or mixed citizen-undocumented couples). The fear is that migrants are coming to the U.S. in order to have American citizen babies so that they will not be deported.

Anchor babies protest

The truth is that in 2013, ICE deported 72,410 undocumented immigrants with one or more U.S. citizen children.

The only way citizen children can help their parents legally “anchor” themselves in the U.S. is to wait till they’re 21 years old, then begin the lengthy process of applying for their parents to get a green card. But the parents must first leave the country, and if they spent more than a year illegally in the U.S., there’s a 10-year ban on returning. It’s too protracted a process to be a popular ploy for gaining citizenship.

Still, many politicians are advocating finagling the Fourteenth Amendment to eliminate birthright citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants.

Here’s Mr. Combover again, in all his eloquent glory: “There’s a very big question as to the anchor babies. There’s a very big question as to whether or not the Fourteenth Amendment actually covers this. We’re going to find out whether or not it does.”

It does. The language of the Fourteenth Amendment is clear:

“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.”

Some birthright citizenship naysayers are grasping at the “subject to the jurisdiction” clause. It was written to mean that children of foreign diplomats temporarily residing in the U.S. and not subject to U.S. law are not automatically American citizens.  

These naysayers claim that “subject to the jurisdiction” of the U.S. means not “owing allegiance to anyone else,” as 19th-century senator Lyman Trumbull noted. And they imply that American-born children of undocumented immigrants feel allegiance to Mexico or Guatemala or Venezuela, despite the fact that many of these children have never been outside the U.S., and their parents risked their lives to leave those countries.

It’s the same reasoning we used during WWII when we were so afraid Japanese-Americans would feel allegiance toward the country of their ancestors that we imprisoned them in concentration camps.

Japanese Internment Camp

Japanese Internment Camp

But despite politicians’ attempts to frack the bedrock of citizenship, the Supreme Court has unequivocally endorsed birthright citizenship.

The court did this in the 1890s, at a time when we were so afraid Chinese laborers would overrun our country that we passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting their immigration. (Never mind that the Chinese were largely responsible for building the transcontinental railroad, which revolutionized the American economy. It’s another instance of the public wanting the labor of brown people, but not their citizenship.)

Illustration about Chinese Exclusion Act

Illustration about Chinese Exclusion Act

The Supreme Court case was Wong Kim Ark vs. the United States. A 24-year-old native-born American, Wong Kim Ark was denied re-entry into California after a visit to China. He fought the case, and the court ruled in his favor. Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray determined that according to the Fourteenth Amendment, “The right of citizenship [in the United States]… is incident to birth in the country.”

Still, people who worry the country will be “overrun by another and a different race,” as Senator Cowan feared, say that times have changed since the Fourteenth Amendment was written, and the constitution should be changed accordingly.

Sign posted a century after blacks were granted citizenship.

Sign posted a century after the Fourteenth Amendment was written.

The constitution is and should be a flexible document. But it should always reflect the unchanging values of America, not the ever-changing cultural values of individuals.

Anti Japanese message during WWII.

Anti Japanese message during WWII.

The wind of change constantly blows through the country, causing many of us to shiver in fear. But the constitution is there, in part, to protect us against fear.


When we fear that angry, dissenting voices will undermine the beliefs we hold dear, the First Amendment says we must bravely allow those voices to speak.

When we fear that those deemed criminals will harm us, the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments say we must courageously give them the right to security, privacy, and a fair trial.

And when we fear that “people of different religions, of different manners, of different traditions, different tastes and sympathies” are being born our country, the Fourteenth Amendment says we must open our hearts and minds to embrace them.