Jurisprudence

Trump’s Plan to End Birthright Citizenship Has Been Tried Elsewhere. The Human Rights Abuses Were Horrific.

Donald Trump points at the crowd at a rally.
President Donald Trump arrives for a campaign rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Sunday.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Last week during an interview with Axios, President Donald Trump revealed that he would like to try to end birthright citizenship (jus soli) through an executive order. The implications of this threat, which would primarily affect children of undocumented persons and noncitizens, are incredibly dark. In establishing his desire to unilaterally overturn about 120 years of established practice—and the Constitution and federal law—Trump is adopting the playbook of some of the most vicious nationalists from other parts of the world. Stateless people are among the most invisible in the world. This condition has historically enabled the commission of atrocities with impunity. Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, and his government’s actions, has created fertile ground for state-sanctioned abuse to flourish.

Burma and the Dominican Republic offer two of the most dramatic examples of what mass denationalization actually looks like in practice. Over the years, Burmese military rulers have used mass denationalization to target the Rohingya—an ethnic and religious minority, perceived by most Burmese as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. In 1982, the junta’s Citizenship Law stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship. Overnight, about 1 million people became stateless. In 2013, meanwhile, the Dominican Constitutional Court revoked the nationality of more than 200,000 people, primarily those of Haitian descent.

In the United States, mass statelessness is already not that far off. A study by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank, indicates that denying birthright citizenship to babies with at least one unauthorized parent would inflate the unauthorized population from 11 million to 24 million by 2050. Much of this population is unlikely to have ties to any other country. Many others have no proof of citizenship from their country of origin and so cannot pass nationality to their children. Trump’s executive order would cast hundreds of thousands into a self-perpetuating class of de facto statelessness.

If this happens, these stateless people will face the potential for severe civil rights abuses. Nationality is one of the main ways people are bestowed with political rights. Countries face little pressure to care for the stateless, meanwhile. Take the Dominican Republic, which abolished jus soli citizenship in 2013, with retroactive application. The court’s ruling that children born in the country to undocumented foreign parents after 1929 had never been entitled to Dominican nationality stripped 200,000 Dominicans—mainly of Haitian descent but without any connections to Haiti—of their citizenship. Activists and international organizations condemned the move as the culmination of a long history of anti-Haitian racism and xenophobia.

In the Dominican Republic, stripping these people of their nationality has served to solidify their “other” status and legitimize abuse. The Georgetown Law Human Rights Institute found that children without documentation in the DR have been denied access to schools and universities, despite a constitutionally guaranteed right to education. Consequently, they have had no access to the formal labor market and are unable to strive to improve their standards of living. They cannot vote and are denied access to public services like health care. They are also at high risk of arbitrary arrest and deportation. In 2016, a scorching report from Amnesty International revealed that more than 40,000 of these stateless persons—including children—were swept up in a wave of arbitrary, unending, and illegal deportations. In 2015, unsanitary conditions created a deadly cholera outbreak in makeshift camps, where thousands continue to suffer.

Nowhere has the horror of statelessness been more evident than in Burma. That country’s denationalization policy has affected at least 1.5 million of the estimated 2 million Rohingya, leaving them homeless and with no legal recourse. Statelessness has directly enabled human rights atrocities, including the widespread rape of Rohingya women and girls, and murder of Rohingya babies. This escalated into a genocidal pogrom that has claimed the lives of at least 10,000 Rohingya in one of the most appalling human rights crises of our time. Human Rights Watch reported in 2015 that about 8,000 Rohingya who have undertaken perilous journeys in attempt to flee the country were stranded at sea; hundreds died. Indonesian, Thai, Bangladeshi, and Malaysian authorities have been accused of pushing boats carrying Rohingya back. Today, nearly 1 million Rohingya continue to live in squalid refugee or internally displaced person camps in Burma and Bangladesh, malnourished, with no access to water.

In America, birthright citizenship has prevented the creation of stateless people. If it is revoked, Mexicans and Central Americans, who account for about three-quarters of all unauthorized immigrants, will be hit the hardest. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents already terrorize local communities with impunity. Imagine what they’d do if millions more people in this country were turned stateless. The U.S. does not have a good legislative or legal framework for recognizing or addressing the needs of stateless persons. The smallest infraction or interaction with police could result in expulsion. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already indicated he intends to speed up deportation cases to ease clogged courts. With thousands more potentially on the dockets, immigrants’ due process protections will likely be stripped bare.

The stateless live in purgatory. They will have no right to vote or to a fair wage. They will have no access to health care. Their ability to travel will be severely restricted. Creating or validating the “outsider” status of people born in the U.S. will have calamitous effects on the integration of immigrants into society, causing generational damage, with profound psychological effects, especially on the young. U.S.-born children will be unable to sponsor their undocumented parents, tearing families apart. Atrocities do not occur in a vacuum. Trump’s nationalist dog whistling has surged in advance of the midterms, culminating in Trump’s racist call for an end to birthright citizenship. From “separating” babies from their parents, to disallowing survivors of domestic violence from seeking asylum in the U.S. (a policy that particularly affected Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Nicaraguans), to stoking hysteria about caravans of Latin American migrants, Trump has weaponized racism and xenophobia against immigrants in real and devastating ways. So, while the Rohingya’s and Dominican’s experience with statelessness seems extreme, there is far less reason than in the past to think that this horror can’t be replicated here. In June, Trump tweeted, “When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came.” Creating a class of stateless persons will expose hundreds of thousands—including children and infants—to the threat of such mass expulsions. With no “home country” to return to, they could easily languish indefinitely in camps or detention centers, without a right to counsel. (Trump has already promoted the idea of these “tent cities.”) We need only look at other countries that have gone down this road to see how antithetical to America’s purported values—and how truly ugly—that would be.