Should Liberals Compromise on Birthright Citizenship?

| Tue Aug. 10, 2010 12:08 PM EDT

Will Wilkinson argues that if liberals gave in on birthright citizenship, it might take some of the steam out of the anti-immigration movement:

I believe the international evidence supports the idea that ending pure jus soli [that's Latin for "birthright citizenship" –ed] softens opposition to immigration. Even if nativists and xenophobes shift to another argument with undiminished energy, the evidence suggests that worries about the fairness and distributive consequences of birthright citizenship harbored by more moderate voters would weaken, shifting the position of the median voter toward greater openness to immigration.

At first, this seems persuasive. But international evidence aside, how about U.S. evidence? I remember back in the thumbsucking years of the blogosphere we had a similar argument about gun control. The argument went like this: gun nuts are all afraid that the government is going to come and take away their guns. Sure, this is crazy, but it's what they think. So what if the Supreme Court ruled that gun ownership is an individual right under the Second Amendment? That would assure the gun folks that no one could take away their guns and might make them more amenable to some of the softer forms of firearm regulation that liberals support.

I hardly need to tell you that this didn't happen. In fact, I'm not sure you can find any example of that happening among either liberals or conservatives. Roe v. Wade didn't settle the abortion issue, the passage of Medicare didn't settle the healthcare issue, Reagan's tax cuts didn't satisfy the supply siders, etc. etc. Likewise, I don't think the end of birthright citizenship would slow down the immigration brawl even slightly, especially since I've long been convinced that the real hot button issue is cultural resentment and language angst, not anchor babies or low paid field workers. Beyond that, though, Tim Lee offers a positive case for birthright citizenship here and Jason Kuznicki agrees with him here:

I’d give the nod to Tim, because I don’t imagine that anti-immigration activists are going to be bought off so easily. Instead, a permanent, multi-generational class of non-citizens would just be fuel for the fire. Twenty years on, immigration foes will look at all the second- and third-generation non-citizens we’ve created, and the mass arrests and deportations will really begin in earnest. Not a problem I’d want to create.

Worse, by then the anti- side may even have a point. A permanently alienated underclass isn’t going to be so loyal or so invested in the American polity. They wouldn’t have any reason or need to be. The genius of birthright citizenship is that it changes the incentives for everyone involved. It says to all populations: You’ve got roughly twenty years to figure out how to live with one another, as citizens. Now get to work.

One of the things that always astonishes me about immigration hardliners is their blindness to the fact that, partly by chance and partly by design, the U.S. has been one of the most successful countries in history at assimilating immigrants. Jason is right: birthright citizenship, regardless of whether or not the framers of the 14th Amendment intended it to operate the way it does, works. The American version of immigration works. Mexican immigrants have kids who speak English, Muslim immigrants build mosques and hate Osama bin Laden, and Vietnamese immigrants settle down in the middle of Orange County and build prosperous businesses. Sure, it's messy. Life is messy. But what country does it better? I'll take our version over the European version any day.

I'm all in favor of immigration reform that makes it easier to get in legally and harder to get in illegally. That includes crackdowns on employers who knowingly employ undocumented workers and support for E-Verify, imperfect though it is. Beyond that, though, count me out. We need to regulate, not demonize, and a large, permanent class of resentful noncitizens is something nobody should be pining for.