Donald Trump’s daring proposal to end birthright citizenship in the United States, which has been echoed by several other Republican presidential candidates, is reigniting debate over whether giving citizenship to every person born in the U.S. without exception is a sound policy. While the debate currently is focused on illegal immigrants from Latin America and the “anchor babies” they have in the United States, there is another dimension to the issue worthy of note: Anti-American Islamic radicals who can possess American citizenship even if they were raised abroad by non-citizen parents.
Current U.S. citizenship law is governed by the Fourteenth Amendment, which reads in part “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 1898 Supreme Court case U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, the conventional interpretation of that clause has been that anybody born in the U.S., save the children of foreign diplomats, is automatically a citizen, even if their parents are foreign citizens, in the country illegally, or even simply in the U.S. on vacation. This principle, called “birthright citizenship,” is the norm in North and South America but relatively uncommon elsewhere. For instance, not a single European country follows the American standard; some, such as Ireland and Malta, once had it and then repealed it.
Notable beneficiaries of birthright citizenship include two American enemies: Anwar al-Awlaki and Yaser Hamdi. Both were American citizens by virtue of being born in the United States, even though they were born to non-citizens who at the time had not been granted permanent residence in the United States. Their are only anecdotal examples among millions of Americans who have benefited from birthright citizenship, but they do illustrate the potential national security hazards of freely awarding citizenship to anybody born in the U.S.
Al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico in 1971, but neither of his parents were U.S. citizens or even permanent residents at the time. Both were Yemenis, and his father had a student visa to study at New Mexico State University. After al-Awlaki’s father finished his studies, the family returned to Yemen, where he lived for the next 11 years. (RELATED: Anwar Al-Awlaki And The Perils Of Birthright Citizenship)
Al-Awlaki’s American citizenship gave him a host of benefits. Despite ties to radical Islam that were sufficient to raise eyebrows, he could still freely preach in the U.S. without any fear of deportation, even if he committed crimes like soliciting prostitutes. More directly, al-Awlaki’s citizen status greatly complicated the U.S.’s ability to take military action against him once he became a known al-Qaida operative, as his status raised legal questions about whether the U.S. could even attempt to kill him.
Similarly, the notable case of Yaser Hamdi also hinged upon birthright citizenship. Hamdi was captured in Afghanistan in 2001, where he had trained at a Taliban-aligned camp for militants. Bush administration efforts to treat Hamdi as an enemy combatant were greatly hindered by the fact that Hamdi was, in fact, a U.S. citizen. His parents had been in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on temporary work visas in 1980 when Hamdi was born. Although his family soon returned to Saudi Arabia and Hamdi spent virtually his entire life there, he nonetheless possessed U.S. citizenship. Courts ruled that despite being captured on a battlefield in Afghanistan, Hamdi was entitled to the full due process rights of U.S. citizens.
Eventually, the government released Hamdi without charge in a deal where he agreed to renounce his U.S. citizenship, return to Saudi Arabia, and not travel to certain foreign countries such as Israel and Pakistan.
Hamdi’s case had a mundane end, but could easily have gone quite differently. Had Hamdi been recruited as a terrorist operative while in Afghanistan, the government would not have been able to keep him out of the U.S., even if it strongly suspected (but lacked ironclad proof) that he had associated with dangerous Islamic radicals. While potentially dangerous foreigners may be turned away from the U.S., citizens must either be charged with a crime or else allowed to travel freely.
Al-Awlaki and Hamdi are only anecdotal examples, and the U.S. has seen ample cases of homegrown terrorists legally born and raised in the U.S. who still became Islamic extremists, from José Padilla to Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hassan. Nevertheless, the possibility of enabling foreign extremists may be worthy of consideration in the debate over U.S. citizenship policy.
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