CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new paper from a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign expert who studies immigration law and labor issues argues that the birthright citizenship principle enshrined in the U.S. Constitution emerged from the Colonial-era adoption of permissive citizenship policies to gain a competitive labor advantage with foreigners and their U.S.-born children.
Birthright citizenship, which automatically confers U.S. citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil, has served pragmatic economic purposes for ambitious empires-in-the-making as far back as the ancient Romans, said Michael LeRoy, a professor of labor and employment relations at Illinois.
“For more than two millennia, the birthright citizenship idea introduced foreigners – often people of different races and religions – to otherwise homogeneous states such as ancient Rome, the British Empire era of England and Colonial America,” LeRoy said. “Those realms of power adopted birthright citizenship in order to exploit a competitive edge in terms of the sheer number of workers at their disposal over their colonial rivals. Over time, those countries flourished because of a more diverse and skilled workforce.”
The American form of birthright citizenship, which is guaranteed in the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, is “clearly rooted in Roman and English legal principles, many of which were fueled by expansionist territorial ambitions coupled with mercantile economies,” LeRoy said.
“My paper shows that birthright citizenship was established in a 1606 charter to colonize Virginia, predating the U.S. Constitution by nearly 200 years,” he said. “Records from the 39th U.S. Congress in 1866 clearly show that the birthright citizenship debate centered on the labor utility of foreigners and their children in spurring economic development. Subsequently, Congress enacted this right in the 14th Amendment, which was adopted in 1868. It was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1898, and nothing of legal significance has changed since then.”
Current efforts to limit American birthright citizenship are contradicted by a lengthy historical record that valued the labor of foreigners and their native-born children so much as to grant them citizenship, LeRoy said.
“Birthright citizenship is far more established than its opponents realize or acknowledge – or are willing to acknowledge,” he said. “The fact that this fundamental right originated in legislative, executive and judicial actions over two millennia underscores its societal importance.”
While birthright citizenship opponents may depict unlawful immigrants as indolent, unassimilable welfare freeloaders, “they ignore the long historical record that these foreigners work industriously in jobs that Americans shun,” LeRoy said.
“They also conveniently ignore evidence that the American-born children of immigrants compensate for the welfare transfers to their parents,” he said. “Birthright opponents miss these many lessons of the competitive labor advantage to the U.S. of having a birthright citizenship policy.”
Just as immigration and organized labor are often intertwined when nations broaden legal immigration, they are also connected when nations seek to limit immigration, LeRoy said.
“American labor unions are not exempt from nativist impulses and offer shameful examples of such,” he said. “In the late 1800s, many labor leaders successfully argued for the restriction of Chinese immigration. By the 1920s, labor protectionism and eugenics brought America’s working class and intellectuals together to support legal restrictions for Asians and most Europeans.”
But over time, birthright citizenship’s pluralism has prevailed and helped economic superpowers – past and present – thrive.
“This study not only shows the labor utility of universal birthright citizenship, it also reveals the fundamental morality behind this economic rationale,” LeRoy said. “History shows that structural inequality has thwarted economic growth and trade. Rome tempered its conquests with pluralistic marriage, naturalization and citizenship laws. England was a hungry, depressed and depopulated island nation until it owned up to the shortcomings of its restrictive naturalization laws. It became an empire only after it became a safe haven for religiously oppressed Europeans with sophisticated labor skills.
“If economic history informs this conversation, the labor origins of birthright citizenship prove that a nation’s wealth depends on welcoming the stranger.”
The paper will be published in the Hofstra Labor and Employment Law Journal.