Protecting Immigrants From Government Exploitation

Trading birthright citizenship for an expanded guest worker program is a bad deal for both immigrants and Americans.


Repealing automatic or birthright citizenship for kids of unauthorized parents has become the cause du jour of anti-immigration restrictionists. Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), is even warning that scrapping this provision is necessary to foil terrorists. As he sees it, Al Qaeda is planning to sneak in pregnant moms to deliver on American soil so that their babies can use their American passport to return to their birthplace and "destroy our lifestyle." But instead of smuggling in Al Qaeda moms to harvest terrorist babies years from now couldn't Al Qaeda just smuggle in Al Qaeda dads for immediate mayhem?

Be that as it may, ending birthright citizenship—which will require amending the 14th Amendment that guarantees citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil—is a perennial restrictionist crusade so it is hardly surprising that it is flaring up this Republican political season. What is surprising is that even some progressive-minded advocates of open borders and limited government are joining them. Why? Because they believe this will be good for immigrants.

They have a far stronger case than conservatives such as George Will, whose rule-of-law argument for scrapping this right I addressed in a recent column. Still, the progressive case ultimately falls short too.

Its chief proponent Will Wilkinson argues that delinking the right of immigrants to live and work in the US from citizenship rights will make America a more welcoming place for newcomers. Why? Because Americans will be far more inclined to accept a guest worker program for unskilled immigrants if they don't have to offer costly welfare benefits that accompany citizenship. And given that these workers can increase the value of their labor many-fold by just stepping on American soil (while contributing to our economy), the number one priority of anyone interested in alleviating global poverty should be to try and open the door to them.

This is a powerful argument except for one major problem: To make it work, its proponents will have to go much further in restricting citizenship eligibility than even the restrictionists—an odd position for open-border libertarians. Restrictionists' want to primarily deny citizenship to kids who don't have even one documented parent. But a guest worker program would greatly increase the number of legal immigrants whose kids are eligible for citizenship. Thus unless Wilkinson is prepared to end birthright citizenship rights for all immigrant children—documented and undocumented—and make even naturalization or non-birthright citizenship harder for guest workers, it is hard to see how his plan would persuade Americans to let more workers in.

But what would life without citizenship be like? It is true that most immigrants go to rich countries for jobs, not mooch off welfare. Hence eliminating welfare in exchange for greater access to Western labor markets might strike most as a good deal. But the true benefit of citizenship is not government handouts but protection from the government itself.

In theory, the U.S. constitution guarantees immigrants the same due process protections as citizens. The reality, however, is different. The Supreme Court some years ago had to stop the feds from deporting a 47-year-old Haitian immigrant who pleaded guilty to drunk driving even though he had lived in America legally for 20 years without a criminal record and had an American wife and children. Post 9-11, Uncle Sam arbitrarily detained thousands of Arab immigrants for questioning. And the Patriot Act gives the government unprecedented detention powers over all immigrants. (Such developments prompted me to hurriedly file my naturalization papers after 9-11.) Limiting citizenship rights would expose immigrants to government abuse.

Worse, it will create a large class of residents whom the government can tax but who can't vote—eviscerating the principle of no taxation without representation for which the American Revolution was fought. As it is, the government taxes immigrants—both undocumented and documented—while restricting welfare services to them. Undocumented aliens have always paid payroll, property, sales, and occasionally even income taxes without ever being eligible for any federal means-tested welfare benefits. And the 1996 welfare reforms prohibited even legal aliens from collecting many such benefits for five years. Indeed, the citizenship-for-mobility swap legitimizes the myth that immigrants are a net drain on American taxpayers. In fact, they use less in welfare than they pay in taxes.

Further limiting citizenship options will mean that disenfranchised foreign workers will have no out from a government who wants to squeeze them to subsidize citizens. If they stay despite such exploitation, obviously that's because the alternative they confront back home is worse. But creating a situation where the government might experiment with just how much it can exploit poor people before they pack up is neither progressive nor libertarian.

A guest worker program offering foreign workers, especially unskilled ones, more freedom to live and work in this country is certainly worth fighting for. But sacrificing citizenship options might make them objects of government tyranny—and our government more tyrannical. If welfare is an impediment to greater worker mobility, then the real solution is to roll it back. Trying to make political accommodations around it may not help foreign workers as much as it might corrupt us.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a weekly columnist at The Daily, where this column originally appeared.