Throughout immigration history — both in the United States and in other countries — pregnant women’s motives have been scrutinized. This new regulation may be an acknowledgment that the Trump administration can’t get rid of birthright citizenship as easily as it may wish.
What’s the change?
The regulations instruct U.S. Embassy personnel around the world to explicitly deny applications for what are called B1/B2 visas (a temporary visa for business and tourism) for birth tourism. The provisions don’t apply to tourists from the 39 (mostly European) countries covered by the visa waiver program, which allows citizens of these countries to visit the United States without a visa.
Here’s the wording:
“This rule establishes that travel to the United States with the primary purpose of obtaining US citizenship for a child by giving birth in the United States is an impermissible basis for the issuance of a B nonimmigrant visa.”(Department of State, Public notice 10930, pages 1-2)
While there are exemptions for women traveling to the United States for medical treatment, applicants must prove that treatment is necessary and that they can pay for it.
Birthright citizenship around the world
More than 30 countries around the world have some kind of birthright citizenship. But the terms vary widely. While some countries like the United States offer citizenship unconditionally to anyone born on their soil (with narrow exceptions for the children of diplomats), others condition citizenship on such factors as how long the parent or parents have lived in the country or their immigration status; where the child will live; or some combination of those.
At least one country that used to grant birthright citizenship, Ireland, repealed it by referendum in 2004 because many people thought that pregnant foreign women were using a child’s birth on Irish soil to secure residency and circumvent Irish asylum laws. Gender and women’s studies professor Eithne Lubehéld‘s book “Pregnant on Arrival: Making the Immigrant Illegal” observes that the Irish drew inspiration and information from U.S. debates about birth tourism.
In the United States, birthright citizenship dates to Reconstruction
The 14th Amendment states: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the States wherein they reside.” The Amendment, ratified in 1868 during Reconstruction, clarified the citizenship status of free black Americans and overturned the 1857 Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sanford that stated that black people could not be citizens.
While the amendment was being debated, some members of Congress worried that birthright citizenship would enable the Chinese to become citizens. But concern for children born to European immigrants overrode the anti-Asian prejudice. The Supreme Court clarified that the birthright citizenship clause covers children born to immigrants — not just formerly enslaved and free African Americans — in U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark (1898), writing:
“To hold that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution excludes from citizenship the children, born in the United States, of citizens or subjects of other countries would be to deny citizenship to thousands of persons of English, Scotch, Irish, German, or other European parentage who have always been considered and treated as citizens of the United States.”U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark (1898)
Historically, the United States has scrutinized pregnant immigrant women — sometimes excluding or deporting them — under the provisions “likely to become a public charge” and “moral turpitude,” dating back to the early 20th century. The public-charge regulation grew from fear that pregnant immigrant women would use public resources like hospitals, burdening American communities both economically and socially. Moral turpitude was supposed to exclude immigrants who had committed certain crimes or offenses — although it has never been clear which ones, exactly, would get someone excluded or deported. Consular officers sometimes used these against women and others who violate social norms, such as unwed pregnant women or single women traveling alone.
In his recent book “Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution, and U.S. Empire,” legal scholar Sam Erman wrote that in the early 20th century, the commissioner of immigration told Ellis Island immigration inspectors to aggressively enforce the public-charge provisions. Under these instructions, Erman writes, “Ellis Island policy dictated that women who were pregnant and not married had to be held for additional investigation.”
Rutgers student Alyzette Consoli wrote about Minnie Langford, a pregnant black woman traveling from Nova Scotia to New York City in 1920. When she was hospitalized at Bellevue because of pregnancy complications, immigration officials were notified and she was deported. Consoli noted, “It was common practice at this time to exclude a woman on the basis of being ‘Likely to become a Public Charge’ (LPC) when they were actually being targeted for moral turpitude offenses.”
What does all this mean for the Trump administration’s new regulations?
Consular officers already enjoy wide discretion in granting and denying visas, and they do not have to explain their denials. An applicant has no right to appeal, and the decision is not subject to judicial review.
President Trump has often railed against the United States’ generous birthright citizenship policy. In a 2018 interview with Axios, he stated, “We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States … with all of those benefits. … It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. And it has to end."
Changing the regulations may be the administration’s concession to those who insist that the only way to get rid of birthright citizenship would be by amending the Constitution, even though Trump has argued that a law or an executive order would be enough.
Anna O. Law (@unlawfulentries) is Herbert Kurz Chair of Constitutional Rights at CUNY Brooklyn College and author of “The Immigration Battle in American Courts” (Cambridge University Press, 2013).