Posted on August 21, 2015

How Trump Could Change Birthright Citizenship

Jon Feere, The Hill, August 21, 2015

One of the proposals listed in Donald Trump’s immigration policy outline includes ending birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigrants, and presumably children of birth tourists who game the system in order to add a U.S. passport holder to their families. We estimate there are up to 400,000 children born to illegal immigrants every year and perhaps as many as 36,000 birth tourists annually.

Americans overwhelmingly support a more narrow application of the 14th Amendment’s Citizenship Clause than the one currently being employed. It’s not clear that Congress intended such a broad application of the Citizenship Clause or that a constitutional amendment is necessary to change how births to temporary aliens are handled. For an analysis of the issue, see my report, “Birthright Citizenship in the United States: A Global Comparison.”

There are two ways a president could attempt to narrow the scope of the Citizenship Clause: get Congress to write legislation or take executive action.

Legislative option. Though some have argued that a constitutional amendment is necessary to change the scope of the Citizenship Clause–“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”–this would only be true if the clause clearly spoke to children of illegal immigrants and other temporary aliens (e.g., guest workers, tourists, foreign students), and there is plenty of disagreement as to whether it does.

Consequently there have been many bills in Congress to better define the scope of the Citizenship Clause. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) introduced legislation in 1993 limiting birthright citizenship to the children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. And Congress has previously helped define the scope of the Citizenship Clause; in 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, extending birthright citizenship to American Indians and their children. Congress has not extended this benefit to illegal immigrants or tourists.


Congress routinely authors legislation aimed at clarifying the scope of the Second Amendment–why couldn’t it do the same for the 14th Amendment?

Executive action. President Obama has demonstrated that unilateral action by the executive branch is a legitimate means of changing the nation’s immigration policy. Many editorial boards have embraced Obama’s actions granting work permits and Social Security accounts to illegal aliens. Though his actions have been controversial, executive actions that direct agencies how to approach birthright citizenship are arguably more justifiable.


A president wanting to clean up this mess would have to consider the scope of the Citizenship Clause. It does not appear there was ever a moment where a president said, “Yes, I think children born to tourists and illegal aliens are entitled to Social Security numbers and passports.” The broad application of the Citizenship Clause is arguably on autopilot.

A president could direct his agencies to fall in line with his interpretation of the Supreme Court’s rulings, which are arguably limited to children of permanently domiciled immigrants (the court has never squarely ruled on children born to tourists or illegal aliens). He could direct his agencies to issue Social Security numbers and passports only to newborns who have at least one parent who is a citizen or permanently domiciled immigrant.

Whether Trump worked with Congress to draft legislation or simply directed agencies to apply the Citizenship Clause more narrowly, the issue would likely end up at the Supreme Court. {snip}