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On Babies And Birthright, Rhetoric Outpaces Reality


If you're born in the U.S., you are automatically a citizen. But several Republican candidates for president have been questioning birthright citizenship and speaking out against what they call anchor babies. That refers to babies born to people who come to the U.S. specifically so their child gets automatic citizenship. It's a term many people find offensive. But preventing this practice may be harder in reality than in political rhetoric. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben is with us to sort this out. Hi, Danielle.


VIGELAND: Give us a sense of what Republicans are saying about this.

KURTZLEBEN: Right, so you've had a whole string of them come out against birthright citizenship in the last week or so; Donald Trump first of all, but also Ben Carson, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, just to name a few. That's, of course, an incomplete list. But the point is that it's a popular idea among Republican presidential candidates. But not everybody on the Republican side holds it. You have Jeb Bush, for example. He supports birthright citizenship, but he still thinks that the U.S. needs to be somehow more vigilant on it. Here's what he said this week on the radio show Morning In America.


PRES CAND JEB BUSH: If they're sad, or if there's abuse, if people are bringing...


BUSH: ...Pregnant women are coming in to have babies simply because they can do it, then there ought to be greater enforcement. That's legitimate - you know, side of this. Greater enforcement so that you don't have these, you know, anchor babies, as they're described, coming into the country.

KURTZLEBEN: So that's Jeb Bush, and he's not alone. You also have Marco Rubio. He said he supports birthright citizenship as well, but he also indicated that he somehow wants to get tougher on this as well.

VIGELAND: How often does this happen - people coming to the U.S. from other countries specifically to have children so they can get citizenship? Are there numbers on this?

KURTZLEBEN: There are and they are, by their nature, sketchy because it's not something that anybody can really provide a formal count of.


KURTZLEBEN: On the one hand, there's a phenomenon called birth tourism. It's the idea that someone tries to come into the U.S. saying they're a tourist, but really with the intent of having a child here. Birth tourism numbers around 36,000 women per year. And consider the millions of babies born in the U.S. per year. That's not a big number. So that's one group. But then you have lots of other people in the U.S. illegally - either they overstay a visa, or they came here illegally in the first place. Once again, like I said, it's not a great number. But the Pew Research Center in 2008 estimated that around 340,000 of the 4.3 million babies born that year were born to someone who was here illegally.

VIGELAND: Well, let's talk about the options that the government might have to prevent this birth tourism.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, to be honest, it doesn't look like there's a whole lot the U.S. can do. I've talked to a couple of experts on this, and what they told me is it is illegal to lie about why you're coming into the U.S. So if somehow customs were able to try to more tightly enforce this, to ask more pointed questions maybe - but after that, you have the people who might have come here legally but then overstayed a visa and had a child while they were here. You could try to tighten the entry-exit system, but that might only go so far. Likewise, there are lots of people who come here illegally and have a child. And it's hard to see how you would try to screen that out.

VIGELAND: All right, then what are the political ramifications that we're talking about here?

KURTZLEBEN: What some people have said is that this is an example of Donald Trump with inflammatory immigration rhetoric, you know, pushing the rest of his fellow candidates to come out with their own strong positions on immigration. But then you have people like Bush and Rubio who still say yes, I support birthright citizenship, but they didn't really come out with specifics. So what you might have here is the ripple effects of Donald Trump showing up and the way everybody else phrases their immigration positions.

VIGELAND: That's NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben in Washington. Danielle, thank you.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
Tess Vigeland