I have been pondering the issue of birthright citizenship now that it’s (unbelievably) under fire, and there is one thing I just can’t figure out. Why are those who are staunchly opposed to illegal immigration not defending the 14th Amendment just as staunchly?

After all, the 14th Amendment sets up a very clear structure that helps us define who has a right to citizenship and who does not: those born here have the right to full citizenship (unless, as in the case of certain children of diplomats, one is born here but not subject to U.S. jurisdiction—an exception.) What is the alternative? A very messy system under which those who are born here would have to show additional forms of proof as to the status of their parents in order to claim a right to U.S. citizenship. If it is difficult now to determine who has a legal right to be in the U.S., it’s certainly not going to get any easier if we start making fine distinctions among those people actually born here. If –as many allege—our current immigration system is prone to fraud, consider the potential expansion in the market for counterfeit documents if proof of the status of parents is required of those born in our country.

Certainly those who seek to reduce –indeed, eliminate– illegal immigration to the United States could not possibly be in favor of creating an entirely new class of U.S. inhabitants whose right to remain here legally is amorphous and uncertain. And those who point to the dollars we have to spend to deal with illegal immigration could certainly not support the creation of the bureaucratic apparatus that we will surely need to wade through the paperwork morass in order to figure out who is and is not a citizen by birth in the U.S.? Or could they?

One of the original reasons for passage of the 14th Amendment was to avoid the creation of two groups of U.S.-born residents—those with access to all rights and privileges offered by this country and those cut off from those rights and privileges. That made sense 150 years ago, and it still makes sense today.

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Eleanor Pelta

Eleanor Pelta is President-Elect of AILA