If the American Indians, who were certainly born in this country, were not considered automatic citizens by the Constitution's framers, how can it be that the offspring of foreigners who arrive here become automatic citizens?
[Excerpt from speech delivered by Edward Erler, Hillsdale College, February 12, 2008]
Birthright citizenship – the policy whereby the children of illegal aliens born within the geographical limits of the United States are entitled to American citizenship – is a great magnet for illegal immigration. Many believe that this policy is an explicit command of the Constitution, consistent with the British common law system. But this is simply not true.
The framers of the Constitution were, of course, well-versed in the British common law, having learned its essential principles from William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. As such, they knew that the very concept of citizenship was unknown in British common law. Blackstone speaks only of "birthright subjectship" or "birthright allegiance," never using the terms citizen or citizenship.
The idea of birthright subjectship is derived from feudal law. It is the relation of master and servant; all who are born within the protection of the king owe perpetual allegiance as a "debt of gratitude." According to Blackstone, this debt is "intrinsic" and "cannot be forefeited, cancelled, or altered." Birthright subjectship under the common law is thus the doctrine of perpetual allegiance.
America’s Founders rejected this doctrine. The Declaration of Independence, after all, solemnly proclaims that "the good People of these Colonies. . . are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved." According to Blackstone, the common law regards such an act as "high treason." So the common law – the feudal doctrine of perpetual allegiance – could not possibly serve as the ground of American (i.e., republican) citizenship. Indeed, the idea is too preposterous to entertain.
James Wilson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the Constitutional Convention as well as a Supreme Court Justice, captured the essence of the matter when he remarked: "Under the Constitution of the United States there are citizens, but no subjects." The transformation of subjects into citizens was the work of the Declaration and the Constitution. Both are premised on the idea that citizenship is based on the consent of the governed – not the accident of birth.
Who is a Citizen?
Citizenship, of course, does not exist by nature; it is created by law, and the identification of citizens has always been considered an essential aspect of sovereignty. After all, the founders of a new nation are not born citizens of the new nation they create. Indeed, this is true of all citizens of a new nation – they are not born into it, but rather become citizens by law.
Although the Constitution of 1787 mentioned citizens, it did not define citizenship. It was in 1868 that a definition of citizenship entered the Constitution, with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. Here is the familiar language: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."
Thus there are two components to American citizenship: birth or naturalization in the U.S. and being subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S. We have somehow come today to believe that anyone born within the geographical limits of the U.S. is automatically subject to its jurisdiction. But this renders the jurisdiction clause utterly superfluous and without force. If this had been the intention of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, presumably they would simply have said that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are thereby citizens.
Indeed, during debate over the amendment, Senator Jacob Howard of Ohio, the author of the citizenship clause, attempted to assure skeptical colleagues that the new language was not intended to make Indians citizens of the U.S. Indians, Howard conceded, were born within the nation’s geographical limits; but he steadfastly maintained that they were not subject to its jurisdiction because they owed allegiance to their tribes. Senator Lyman Trumbull, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, rose to support his colleague, arguing that "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" meant "not owing allegiance to anybody else and being subject to the complete jurisdiction of the United States." Jurisdiction understood as allegiance, Senator Howard interjected, excludes not only Indians but "persons born in the United States who are foreigners, aliens, [or] who belong to the families of ambassadors or foreign ministers."
Thus "subject to the jurisdiction" does not simply mean, as is commonly thought today, subject to American laws or American courts. It means owing exclusive political allegiance to the U.S.
Consider as well that in 1868, the year the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, Congress passed the Expatriation Act. This act permitted American citizens to renounce their allegiance and alienate their citizenship. This piece of legislation was supported by Senator Howard and other leading architects of the Fourteenth Amendment, and characterized the right of expatriation as "a natural and inherent right of all people, indispensable to the enjoyment of the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Like the idea of citizenship, this right of expatriation is wholly incompatible with the common law understanding of perpetual allegiance and subjectship. One member of the House expressed the general sense of the Congress when he proclaimed: "The old feudal doctrine stated by Blackstone and adopted as part of the common law of England . . . is not only at war with the theory of our institutions, but is equally at war with every principle of justice and of sound public policy." The common law established what was characterized as an "indefensible doctrine of indefeasible allegiance," a feudal doctrine wholly at odds with republican government.
In sum, this legacy of feudalism – which we today call birthright citizenship – was decisively rejected as the ground of American citizenship by the Fourteenth Amendment and the Expatriation Act of 1868. It is absurd, then, to believe that the Fourteenth Amendment confers the boon of American citizenship on the children of illegal aliens. Nor does the denial of birthright citizenship visit the sins of the parents on the children, as is often claimed, since the children of illegal aliens born in the U.S. are not being denied anything to which they have a right. Their allegiance should follow that of their parents during their minority. Furthermore, it is difficult to fathom how those who defy American law can derive benefits for their children by their defiance – or that any sovereign nation would allow such a thing.
[Edward Erler is Professor of Political Science at California State University, San Bernardino, and is co-author of The Founders on Citizenship and Immigration.]