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Immigration has been a lightning rod for controversy since before Trump ever threw his hat in the ring for the Republican nomination, but the United States’ immigration system has been under increasing scrutiny during Trump’s administration. President Trump ran on a platform that emphasized safe borders and a crackdown on illegal immigration. As part of his focus on immigration policies, Trump recently announced that he wants to remove the practice of birthright citizenship.

Birthright citizenship dates back to the early years of the United States. When the young country was still growing and expanding rapidly, citizenship was unofficially based on a person being born in the United States or living in America for a certain period of time. This was made official when the 14th Amendment stated that descendants of slaves were to be considered full citizens of the United States by saying, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”

The question of birthright citizenship has been debated since the 1990’s, but it has recently entered the spotlight due to the practice of illegal immigrants having what are called “anchor babies.” These infants are born to immigrant parents and then used as a foothold for securing parents’ and other family members’ eventual citizenship. The extent of the practice is uncertain, but in 2015, the so-called “birth tourism” industry was considered to be worth millions and millions of dollars in Los Angeles alone.

Trump’s call for an end to birthright citizenship would have been controversial already, but Trump has suggested that affording birthright citizenship to children of illegal immigrants is not supported by the Constitution. His comment has come under heavy attack, but Trump may technically be correct. The constitutionality of granting the children of illegal immigrants citizenship would largely depend on the interpretation of a specific phrase in Section 1 of the 14th Amendment. The section of the amendment is commonly seen as affording citizenship for anyone born in America, but the inclusion of the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction [of the United States]” raises questions about whether the amendment would also apply to illegal immigrants. The debate centers around whether illegal aliens are technically under the jurisdiction of the United States or remain under the jurisdiction of their home country. The case United States v. Wong Kim Ark has been used to argue in favor of birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigrants, but the case is actually less clear cut than many people are aware.

At the time of the Wong Kim Ark case, it was illegal for Chinese nationals to immigrate to the United States due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The case questioned whether the child of two Chinese nationals who was born in the United States should be granted American citizenship. The Supreme Court voted in favor of granting the child citizenship in a 6-2 vote. That said, the Court stated that the child should be awarded citizenship because the parents had a permanent residence in the United States and were thus “subject to the jurisdiction” of America. This same argument does not apply to many illegal immigrants or those who engage in birth tourism. As such, there is debate whether they are covered by the 14th Amendment at all.

If birthright citizenship was removed from the books, America would actually be aligning itself with most of the world when it comes to citizenship rights. Only about 30 countries have unrestricted birthright citizenship which is what the United States currently practices. Most countries either have no birthright citizenship or restrictions on the practice, such as requiring at least one parent to already be a citizen of the country.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the issue of birthright citizenship has largely been approached as all or nothing when restrictions to the practice or reinterpreting the 14th Amendment might deal with the issue with fewer serious consequences or headaches. Interpreting the 14th Amendment to exclude children of illegal aliens from being eligible for birthright citizenship would address concerns about illegal immigrants or expectant mothers engaged in birth tourism taking advantage of the system. The same would be true of requiring one parent to be an American citizen such as is done in Australia.

Though the political extremes will continue to argue for an all or nothing approach to birthright citizenship, and frankly for citizenship in general, restrictions may be the best way to find a middle ground on a contentious issue in the political realm. It might find more pushback, however, in the theological realm.

Christians are hardly a single ideological bloc as has been clearly shown in recent years by denominations breaking apart and churches splitting over questions about social issues such as gay marriage, abortion and gender ideology. Ironically, the very faith that should make it easier for Christians to find common ground and compromise on such issues often leads to people digging in their heels and clinging stubbornly to a single rigid stance. Sadly, many Christians have taken this sort of stance on immigration. Many argue that open borders and illegal immigration hurt immigrants and migrants who are attempting to go through the process legally. Regulating things like birthright citizenship would allow the federal government to spend more time dealing with legal requests for citizenship rather than dealing with those who are not allowed to be in the country. Other Christians, however, claim that blocking illegal immigrants from entering the country is against Christian compassion. When it comes to the question of birthright citizenship, some Christians claim that ceasing birthright citizenship is a form of punishing children for the crimes of their parents. Others, however, have pointed out that the infant is not being punished. Nothing is being done to the child at all in contrast with the current situation that affords a child extra rights based on the fact that they happened to be born in a specific place.

The question of birthright citizenship is unlikely to be dealt with quickly or in such a way that everyone is happy with the outcome. That said, there is almost no chance of the issue fading back into obscurity. Pandora’s Box has been opened, and people are now aware that the idea of birthright citizenship could be removed, altered or regulated. That knowledge will not fade away until something has been done to deal with the overarching issue of immigration reform. Until then, this is likely to be an issue that continues to crop up. Hopefully, it will one day be a debate that leads to compromise and consensus instead of simply yet more controversy.

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