Will Wilkinson has had a big influence on my thinking about migration, nationalism, and related subjects, so I read his pro-immigrant case for ending birthright citizenship with interest. At the heart of his argument is a kind of “grand bargain”: more people would be allowed to live and work in the United States, but they’d be excluded from the benefits of America’s generous welfare state. Will argues that this bargain can only be struck if we end birthright citizenship, because otherwise the children of immigrants will automatically be eligible for the same government benefits as other citizens.
Will is in good company. Milton Friedman, for example, was for open borders in principle but believed that it was incompatible with the welfare state, and Will’s proposal can be seen in the same vein. Still, I found his argument completely unpersuasive. Ending birthright citizenship is a terrible idea, both as a matter of policy and as a matter of pro-immigrant political strategy.
To start with, Will doesn’t really acknowledge how important birthright citizenship is in its own right. I’ve written before about the DREAM Act, which is designed to help thousands of non-citizen kids whose parents brought them to the United States when they were young. These kids are the clearest-cut victims of our immigration system. Through no fault of their own, they live in a kind of legal limbo; they’re not allowed to live or work in the country they’ve called home for as long as they can remember. Ending birthright citizenship would dramatically expand the number of kids who wind up in this predicament and risk creating a permanent, multi-generational underclass.
We also shouldn’t forget that the most important constituency for immigration reform is the immigrant community itself. In the long run, the good guys are likely to win the immigration debate because today’s anchor baby is tomorrow’s pro-immigrant voter. Ending birthright citizenship would permanently reduce the political clout of the immigrant community and harming the long-term prospects for immigration reform.
Will counters that ending birthright citizenship would make it politically feasible to enact other reforms that would help immigrants more. But I’m not so sure. For starters, there’s no reason to think birthright citizenship is the key obstacle to decoupling migration from government benefits. Legal immigrants and their children are already eligible for many government benefits. Green card holders are generally eligible to send their children to public schools. They have restricted access to Medicaid and S-CHIP, but they generally get full eligibility after 5 years, and hospitals will generally treat immigrants (legal or otherwise) that show up in their emergency rooms. Similarly, adult immigrants’ access to food stamp is limited for the first five years, but legal immigrant children are eligible for food stamps immediately. So if you think the problem is that immigrants impose too large a burden on taxpayers (which, to be clear, I don’t), there’s plenty of room to restrict immigrants’ access to benefits without amending the Constitution.
More importantly, I don’t think concerns about immigrants receiving government benefits are the major political obstacle to immigration reform. Generally speaking, ordinary voters who are afraid immigrants will go on welfare are also afraid they’ll steal our jobs, sell drugs to our children, refuse to learn English, and vote for Democrats. Ending birthright citizenship will make those people happy, but it won’t make them more likely to support immigration reform. I think Yglesias is right that opponents of birthright citizenship are generally opponents of migration in general. There’s a rarified class of libertarian intellectuals who follow Milton Friedman in being strongly pro-immigrant conditional on limiting their access to government benefits, but this cohort is too small to be electorally significant, and most of them are on board with reasonable immigration reforms anyway.