Birthright citizenship isn’t just an American political and legal issue. Here is a quick look at how other nations deal with the question of citizenship for people born within their borders to non-citizen parents.
In the United States, the current debate is over the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, and whether its Citizenship Clause extends to the children of undocumented immigrants. The 14th Amendment’s Citizenship Clause reads, “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.”
Since the Supreme Court’s 1898 decision in the Wong Kim Ark case, the American legal system has recognized that almost everyone physically born in the United States becomes a citizen at birth.
In recent years, a theory has emerged that undocumented immigrants aren’t covered by the Constitution’s Citizenship Clause in the 14th Amendment, for several reasons. One idea is that the concept of illegal immigration wasn’t considered in the Wong Kim Ark decision; another is that other legal precedents, including a decision about American Indians, allow Congress to set citizenship requirements by passing laws that don’t require a constitutional amendment.
So how do other countries deal with the complicated issue of citizenship for the children of non-citizens? In at least 30 countries, birthright citizenship is permitted under their constitutions or their laws.
If you are curious about the constitutions of these countries and their citizenship provisions, you can use the Constitution Center’s new Constitutional Rights: Origins and Travels feature to see the exact wording. Just click on the term “Birthright Citizenship” on the right side of the “Rights Around The World” page.
In general, birthright citizenship is common among Western Hemisphere countries and uncommon in other parts of the world. The political fact checking site PolitiFact says about 33 countries have some type of birthright citizenship law on the books, with many enshrined in their constitutions. (Canada uses its statutes to make birthright citizenship a right.)
For example, Mexico’s constitution states that citizens are “those born in the territory of the Republic, regardless of the nationality of their parents.” Title II of Brazil’s constitution has similar language: “Brazilians are by birth those in the Federative Republic of Brazil, even though of foreign parents, provided they are not in the service of their country.”
In Europe, Africa and Asia, constitutions specify that the nations’ laws determine birthright citizenship. France’s constitution reflects many of the broad provisions that grant lawmakers the power to determine citizenship: “Statutes shall determine the nationality, the status and capacity of persons.” Likewise in Indonesia, its constitution specifies that, “matters concerning citizens and residents shall be regulated by the law.” And South Africa specifies that “national legislation must provide for the acquisition, loss and restoration of citizenship.”
Some North African and Middle Eastern nations clearly restrict citizenship to people who have at least one parent who is a legal citizen of that country. For example, Egypt’s constitution says that “citizenship is a right to anyone born to an Egyptian father or an Egyptian mother.”
The situation in Europe is similar. In 2012, the Law Library of Congress looked at birthright citizenship in major European Union nations. In most cases, birthright citizenship was tied to the nationality of a child’s parents, requiring at least one parent to be a citizen of a country where a child was born. Citizenship was granted, with conditions, to children who were abandoned by their parents at birth.
France and the Dominican Republic are two countries that changed the birthright citizenship laws in recent years. In 2013, the Dominican Republic's Supreme Court upheld a legal change that stripped about 250,000 former Dominicans of their citizenship, because their parents weren't citizens at the time of their birth.
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