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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump on Birthright Citizenship

Donald Trump was off base with his claim that Mexico does not have a birthright citizenship policy like the U.S. Although the two countries use different terminology, the two policies are actually very similar.

Trump also overstated the rarity of such policies around the world, claiming that “we’re the only place, just about, that’s stupid enough to do it.” While the majority of countries do not have such a policy, 30 of them do, including Canada and a number of other countries in Central and South America.

During a rally in Mobile, Alabama, on Aug. 21, Trump reiterated his support for doing away with the birthright citizenship provision in the 14th Amendment — which grants citizenship to babies born in the U.S. even if their parent or parents are in the country illegally.

Trump, a Republican presidential candidate, said that as a result of the policy more than 300,000 babies a year, or about 7.5 percent of all children born in the U.S., are born to parents in the U.S. illegally. A 2010 report from the Pew Research Center estimated that “340,000 of the 4.3 million babies born in the United States in 2008 were the offspring of unauthorized immigrants,” which was about 8 percent of births that year. Our fact-checking colleagues at the Washington Post concluded that Trump’s updated figure is accurate, or nearly so.

Trump then went on to say (at about the 35-minute mark): “And you know, in the case of other countries, including Mexico, they don’t do that. It doesn’t work that way. You don’t walk over the border for one day and all of a sudden we have another American citizen. It doesn’t work that way. Mexico doesn’t do it. Other places don’t do it. Very few places do it. We’re the only place, just about, that’s stupid enough to do it.”

Mexican Policy

Let’s start with Trump’s remarks regarding U.S. policy on birthright citizenship and the claim that it “doesn’t work that way” in Mexico. In fact, it mostly does. According to Article 30 of the Mexican Constitution, “The Mexican nationality” is acquired by birth if someone is born within Mexican territory, “whatever their parents’ nationality might be.”

Technically, according to the Mexican Constitution, people don’t become “citizens” of Mexico until they turn 18, at which point they can vote, be elected to public office and join the military. That’s true even of babies born in Mexico to Mexican parents.

But that’s more of a difference in language between the two countries than actual practice, Emilio Kourí, director of the Katz Center for Mexican Studies at the University of Chicago, told us in a phone interview.

Having Mexican “nationality” conferred upon someone entitles them to many of the same types of civil and social rights that are conferred upon a child in the U.S. who is deemed a “citizen,” Kourí said.

In Mexico, “citizenship” is a legal term that implies political rights, such as being able to vote and hold office, Kourí said, and those rights are conferred automatically upon one’s 18th birthday. That’s similar in practice to the policy in the U.S., where “citizens” still can’t vote until they turn 18. (One difference between the two countries’ policies is that in order to be president in Mexico, one needs to have been born to at least one parent who is a Mexican citizen — see Article 82.)

The Mexican Constitution notes that in addition to being 18, to become a citizen one must “have an honest way of life.” That’s to prevent felons from having voting rights, just as is the case in many states in the U.S., Kourí said.

“Mexico currently has a system that is nearly identical to that of the United States,” Kourí said. “What we call birthright citizenship, their constitution calls nationality.”

Though the distinction in language is understood by lawyers, in public discourse, people in Mexico consider themselves to be citizens even without the political rights attached to citizenship, Kourí said. When women’s suffrage came to Mexico in 1953, he said, the constitution’s language was changed so that anyone who turned 18 was then a “citizen,” as opposed to citizenship only being afforded to men. But before then, he said, women certainly considered themselves citizens of Mexico, even though they could not vote.

The Policy in Other Countries

As for Trump’s claim that “very few places” have birthright citizenship policies, it’s true that America’s policy is in the minority in the international community. But the U.S. isn’t alone, by any means.

According to a 2010 analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates for lower immigration, 30 of the world’s 194 countries grant automatic birthright citizenship to the children of immigrants in the country illegally. The U.S. and Canada are the only ones among those 30 countries that have advanced economies as defined by the International Monetary Fund. Outside North America, most of the 30 counties that have birthright citizenship policies are in Central and South America. No country in Europe has such a policy. See Table 1 for the full list of countries that do, and do not, recognize automatic birthright citizenship. CIS was unable to confirm the policy in 19 countries.

Jon Feere, the author of the CIS report, told us via email that if the U.S. were to stop granting automatic citizenship to children of immigrants who are in the country illegally, “it would be following an international trend.”

Feere, Aug. 24: In recent years, the international trend has been to end universal birthright citizenship. Countries that have ended universal birthright citizenship include the United Kingdom, which ended the practice in 1983, Australia (1986), India (1987), Malta (1989), Ireland, which ended the practice through a national referendum in 2004, New Zealand (2006), and the Dominican Republic, which ended the practice in January 2010. The reasons countries have ended automatic birthright citizenship are diverse, but have resulted from concerns not all that different from the concerns of many in the United States. Increased illegal immigration is the main motivating factor in most countries. Birth tourism was one of the reasons Ireland ended automatic birthright citizenship in 2004.

Feere also noted that some of the countries that grant birthright citizenship don’t experience much illegal immigration. For example, he said, Fiji has an estimated illegal immigration population of 2,000 people, which is 0.2 percent of the country’s population. In the U.S., the estimated 11.3 million immigrants living in the country illegally, according to the Pew Research Center, make up about 3.5 percent of the total population.

So it’s true that the U.S. policy of birthright citizenship is at odds with the majority of the world’s countries. But there are still quite a few countries in the Americas that grant birthright citizenship. And that’s a fact that Trump glosses over.

— Robert Farley