Beyond Birthright Citizenship

A distinctively American aspiration.

Photographer: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

The "biggest magnet for illegal immigration" to the U.S. is not, as Donald Trump says, birthright citizenship. The main draw is and always has been economic opportunity. Nevertheless, by raising the issue of birthright citizenship, Trump is giving Americans a useful reminder -- of their nation's principles and their Congress's dereliction of duty.

Birthright citizenship really isn't about immigrants; it's about equality. A product of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1868, it extended citizenship to blacks. Thirty years later, the Supreme Court ruled that U.S.-born children of Chinese residents could not be denied citizenship, as their parents had been.

QuickTake Immigration Reform

Yet birthright citizenship is not merely a remedy for racist policies of the past. For a nation that scorned royal bloodlines, basing citizenship on where you are instead of who your parents are is a powerful statement. It expresses a distinctively American aspiration to openness and equality.

In some instances, such as "birth tourism," in which wealthy women travel to the U.S. to give birth, birthright citizenship is subject to abuse. But such cases are so rare that they shouldn't undermine a valuable American ideal and a longstanding constitutional right.

There are costs to this right, of course, as to others. One way to diminish those costs is for Congress to advance sensible immigration reform -- or merely to resurrect the bipartisan bill, then supported by current candidate Marco Rubio of Florida, that the Senate passed in 2013. If the goal is to deal with illegal immigration, that would be the best, and most obvious, course: rationalizing the undocumented population in the U.S. while strengthening enforcement to dissuade new unauthorized arrivals.

With Trump seizing the initiative, there's no running from this debate -- so candidates might as well make the most of it. Jeb Bush, even as he has gotten bogged down in terminology, for example, has started challenging Trump's "unrealistic" proposals.

Immigration has long been a difficult issue for Republicans. By ceding to Trump's nativist nonsense, they only make it harder for themselves.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.