Recently, in the pages of National Review, writer Dan McLaughlin argued that conservatives should support birthright citizenship. After acknowledging that the current illegal immigration situation ("anchor babies" followed by family migration) is an abuse of the system, he goes on to say that "to root out the abuses might well create more problems than it is worth." His argument is basically two-fold. First, he argues that the legal case is "open and shut"—the original meaning of the 14th Amendment demands that all aliens born on U. S. soil be full citizens. Secondly, he argues that "birthright citizenship exists for reasons intrinsic to our American creed."
McLaughlin is wrong on both counts. But I will leave the legal argument aside, for now. What concerns me is the second argument, which insists that the only truly American immigration policy is one which considers only birthplace. McLaughlin seems to think that, in order to avoid the nefarious "blood and soil" immigration policies of Europe, Americans must restrict themselves to soil alone as a qualification for citizenship. To this end, he quotes James Madison, saying:
"It is an established maxim that birth is a criterion of allegiance. Birth however derives its force sometimes from place and sometimes from parentage, but in general place is the most certain criterion; it is what applies in the United States; it will therefore be unnecessary to investigate any other."
Here, Madison shows a preference for the soil-allegiance of republicanism over the blood-allegiance of feudalism. However, Madison does not argue that birth is the sole criterion for citizenship. In fact, only a few paragraphs beyond McLaughlin's quotation, Madison goes on to say that, in order to become a citizen, "allegiance shall first be due to the whole nation." Allegiance is what matters to Madison. Birthplace and parentage are relevant only insofar as they are evidence of that allegiance.
This is most easily understood by way of illustration. Imagine that a nomadic tribe of Inuit Indians travels down into the territorial United States in order to forage for food, and then returns once again to Canada after a few months. Would anyone consider the Inuit children born on American soil during the tribe's sojourn to be American citizens? Of course not. The allegiance of Inuit children was not with the American People or its government, but with their tribe. For this reason, no one thought that the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to every Indian tribe residing in American territory.
Allegiance cannot be determined by birthplace alone. But, in America, blood heritage is irrelevant to national identity. Then what else is there? How can Americans determine the allegiance of those born on American soil?
The answer lies in the source of American identity: its creed. The Declaration of Independence severed the ties of blood between American colonists and their kin across the Atlantic. For those who are born on American soil and yet are tied by blood to foreign nations, a similar sacrifice may be demanded.