Readers React: Birthright citizenship: Error or example of American exceptionalism?

A mother watches with her daughter as her husband takes the oath of citizenship at a naturalization ceremony in Chicago last month.
(Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Until this week, the letters responding to our editorial series exploring the meaning of U.S. citizenship in the 21st century have nearly all been so thoughtful and civil for a topic that stirs great emotion. We’ve heard from immigrants on their own experiences and natural-born U.S. citizens who disagree on how welcoming this country should be to new Americans.

That tone changed this week, after the editorial board voiced its support for the United States’ guarantee of citizenship to anyone born in this country, also known as “birthright citizenship.” Numerous letters included slurs like “anchor baby” -- an example of one such submission is below -- and other harsh words for immigrants here unlawfully who start families in the United States. It probably didn’t help that some of the more excitable warriors in the immigration debate encouraged their readers to “drop a line to the Times.”

This isn’t to say there weren’t any sober, contemplative voices in the conversation. Several readers, both opposed to and supportive of birthright citizenship, expressed carefully thought-out concern and passion for their respective sides (and with proper capitalization and no exclamation points or slurs). Some who disagreed with The Times’ editorial board said proponents of birthright citizenship push a warped interpretation of Reconstruction-era 14th Amendment and fail to consider the practical implications of granting nationality to anyone born on U.S. soil. Those who agreed with The Times mentioned real-world concerns of their own, including the second-class status of countless children if birthright citizenship were to be abolished.


Here are several of their letters, some of which may appear in print later this week.

Don Tonty of Los Angeles says the 14th Amendment is being applied in ways not intended by its framers:

The Times fails to point out the fundamental reason for the 14th Amendment’s birthright citizenship provision, which was to allow the children of slaves born in America to become citizens. It follows the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and precedes the 15th, which gave the right to vote to black people.

In other words, it was created to confer the rights of freedom on formerly enslaved blacks and had nothing to do with illegal immigrants.

Now we are faced with the dilemma created by our broad interpretation of the 14th Amendment. Separating children from parents, if the children are young, is obviously not a choice. While sending all to the parents’ native country can be difficult for the children, allowing both parents and children to stay rewards the parents for violating immigration law and encourages others to do the same.

The solution is to increase our efforts to protect our borders, stop rewarding the children of illegal immigrants with citizenship, and remove those families here illegally as quickly as possible to ease their children’s transition to life in their parents’ native countries.

David Meredith of Nashville says birthright citizenship is good for societal cohesion:


Another issue that those proclaiming so loudly for an abolition of birthright citizenship are failing to consider is that by doing so, you encourage the creation of a large and growing noncitizen subclass living in your country that is wholly uninvested in society at large. This is a huge problem for other countries and an enormous source of civil unrest (for example, Kurds in Turkey, ethnic Koreans in Japan and so on).

Just because these people are not granted birthright citizenship does not mean that they are going to leave, especially when you are talking about not only “illegal” residents, but the children of legal resident noncitizens.

America’s greatest strength has been our ability to bring in people from all over the world and integrate them fully as contributing members of American society. If you take away birthright citizenship, you are inviting the balkanization of the U.S. and all of the strife and conflict that go with it.

Los Angeles resident Chris Jones cautions that birthright citizenship has real-world consequences:

I found you editorial to be refreshingly well researched and supported. Kudos to you for actually researching the legal basis of the provisions of the 14th Amendment before you dove into the emotionally charged and divisive viewpoints on the issue.

My one complaint you failed to put the debate here in America into a historical or international context.


The British Empire, of which we were once a part, also used to follow the rule of jus soli, which came in handy when the Brits were looking for soldiers to fight their wars in the far corners of the empire. However, as the empire shrank, the British repealed that birthright when faced with the growing obligations to care for so many “citizens.”

In fact, today the United States is virtually alone among developed nations in granting birthright citizenship. While I can appreciate the moral statement that the retention of this privilege makes to the world community, we as a society cannot at the same time turn a blind eye to the practical obligations that come with such an undertaking.

We should be a shining light to inspire the world, but we should inspire people to improve their own countries, not move to ours. That is a true act of charity worthy of our efforts.

Eduardo Vasquez of Los Angeles dismisses the “anchor baby” caricature:

The idea of the great American dream is spreading all over the world -- and people are surprised that foreigners want to come here? Really?

Immigrants do not come here to just “drop” an anchor baby, as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) claimed in 2010. That Graham’s naive statement is even still considered a valid argument upsets me.

The fact that children are now under attack in the immigration battle is pathetic. The solution proposed to further increase border security really disheartens me because it seems only Latinos, once again, are being targeted.

Ignorant politicians need to realize that immigrants come here to pursue prosperity through actual hard work and dedication. Yet there are citizens who can work but sit back and collect welfare -- and they too have babies.

A note form Melinda L. Utz of Shelby, Ohio, typifies the anger expressed by many readers on this issue:


Our country has enough problems as it is. We do not need to worry about illegal aliens and their anchor babies.

I am not against immigrants. Come here the correct way. If you want to become a U.S. citizen, work for it. We can not afford to carry these people. We have enough of our own to worry about in this under this failing administration and economy.

No more illegal aliens! No more anchor babies!

This is part of an ongoing conversation exploring the meaning of citizenship in America today. For more, join us at and #21stCenturyCitizen. We’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts, rebuttals and experiences with us at

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