Born into Statelessness: Unintended Consequences of the End of Birthright Citizenship

In October 2018, in response to growing Central and South American migrant population fleeing violence and approaching the United States, President Trump made a drastic statement that he would seek to end jus soli, or birthright citizenship, through an Executive Order. Lindsey Graham, a Republican Senator from South Carolina, lauded the President’s statement, and indicated that he intended to introduce legislation to the same effect. If successful, this new citizenship law could have a devastating impact on children born in the United States to Central and South American individuals, leaving thousands of them stateless.

As a matter of international law, states are free to determine who is or is not a national of their country without interference from the international community or international law, except in the case of stateless persons. The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness are the two primary international instruments guiding the rights of individuals and the actions of states with regard to nationality. Many international instruments affirm the right an individual has to nationality. Specifically, the 1954 Convention defines a stateless person as someone “who is not considered as a national by any State under operation of its law.” The 1961 Convention requires that states grant nationality to those born on their territory who otherwise would be stateless, and prohibits states from withdrawing nationality from an individual when that individual would then be rendered stateless. Accordingly, under international law, the United States government is free to end, or further restrict, birthright citizenship but only in accordance with the provisions in the 1961 Convention.

Issues arise in practice when the domestic laws of nations conflict, leaving individuals in situations of de facto statelessness. According to the Pew Research Center, about 250,000 children were born in the United States to non-citizen immigrant parents in 2014, with many born to parents who lacked legal status. Because of the domestic laws of the countries from which these immigrants originate, children born to immigrant parents in the United States may lack citizenship of their state of origin. They would therefore be rendered stateless if the United States were to curtail birthright citizenship, in contravention of the 1961 Convention.

For example, the law of Brazil stipulates that individuals born abroad to a Brazilian parent are eligible to acquire citizenship after becoming an adult only if their parent registered their birth with the Brazilian authorities or if they returned to live in Brazil as a child. If the individual is not registered or does not reside in Brazil before the age of majority, he or she is not entitled to Brazilian citizenship, regardless of the nationality of his or her parents. As of 2014, there were approximately 336,000 Brazilian immigrants in the United States.

There are several issues with these requirements of affirmative action on the part of the parents or child. First, to register a child with the authorities of their own birth country, parents must first demonstrate their own citizenship, which may prove problematic. Parents could do this by showing a passport, birth certificate, or identity card. However, these individuals may have fled their homes quickly without such documents, and would therefore risk being unable to register their children even if they desired to do so.

Second, even if the child of Brazilian parents wished to acquire Brazilian citizenship, the decision is entirely in the hands of his or her parents. His or her parents must be the ones to register the child’s birth with the relevant authorities; no other adult is eligible to do this and the child himself cannot make himself known to authorities later in order to qualify for citizenship. If this is not done, the child must return to reside Brazil before the age of majority. For most children, this is a decision entirely out of their control.

Therefore, should the U.S. end birthright citizenship, children born in the U.S. of Brazilian parents would be at risk of de facto statelessness by no fault of their own. This example is meant to be illustrative, though not exhaustive. Many groups of immigrants in the United States would be forced into similarly precarious positions. The domestic laws of many Central and South American countries require parents located out of the country to register their children’s births with the national authorities in order for them to be eligible for citizenship. There are many reasons why parents fleeing violence, persecution, and economic crises may not wish to register the birth of their children. Whatever the reason, innocent children without a choice would suffer as a result of this change of law. Without careful consideration of the potential impact of this change to US birthright law, many children residing in the United States would be rendered de facto stateless and vulnerable as a result.  

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