Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

How citizenship is defined around the world

Illustration by Maphobbyist/Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons)

A map illustrating nations that recognize jus soli citizenship, otherwise known as birthright citizenship (dark blue), and those that don't (gray).

As immigration-restriction advocates campaign to deny U.S. citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants, it's worth taking a look at how other nations handle citizenship at birth.

The United States is one of a long list of countries that recognize jus soli (Latin for "right of the soil") citizenship, most comonly known as birthright citizenship. And there is an even longer list of nations that don't.

The vast majority of nations in the Americas recognize jus soli, including Canada, Mexico (which recognizes nationality at birth) and most of Central and South America. Outside of the Americas, however, straightforward jus soli policies are rare. The norm in Europe, Asia and in much of Africa and elsewhere is some form of jus sanguinis (Latin for "right of blood") citizenship, typically granted to children born to a national of that country.

The policies vary widely, and many nations have modified their laws in recent decades. A few examples:

How do tighter policies for granting citizenship work out for other countries? As global migration has increased and developed nations continue to import labor, just like the United States, nations that don't offer birthright citizenship have still suffered their own immigration-related woes.

In an essay published last fall in the Los Angeles Times, Cal State Long Beach international studies professor Julie M. Weise wrote:

The children born in Germany of two undocumented parents still are not German citizens at birth. The result is an underground market in fraudulent paternity, in which German men who are citizens — derogatorily known as imbissvaeter, or fast-food fathers — claim to be a child's father in exchange for a fee, thus enabling the child to be a German citizen.

Far from promoting the rule of law, Germany's approach to citizenship has created a mess.

Weise pointed to related problems in countries like Japan and Israel, which last summer announced plans to deport hundreds of non-citizen children born in Israel to foreign migrant workers.

And when riots broke out in Paris in 2005 after the accidental electrocution of two teens of African descent, with most the rioters young, second-generation children of immigrants from France's former North African colonies, some critics pointed to a two-tiered system that granted birthright citizenship to other French-born youths, but not these, as part of the underlying social disenfranchisement.

Another issue has been statelessness. Many children born to foreign parents abroad are at least considered nationals of their parents' country by virtue of jus sanguinis (a policy the United States employs), but it doesn't always work this way. From a 2006 Migration Policy Institute report:

Worldwide, the number of stateless persons is rising. The United Nations defines a stateless person as someone who is not considered a national by any state. The rigid practice of jus sanguinis policies can result in statelessness. In other cases, a child with a non-national father born in their mother's country of nationality may be denied that nationality as a result of gender restrictions on the transmission of nationality.

Statelessness also occurs when long-residing ethnic populations have been denied citizenship or have been stripped of citizenship as a result of their racial or ethnic origins.

This has also caused problems for U.S. immigration officials, who have run into trouble deporting stateless people born in countries that did not grant them citizenship at birth, sometimes because the countries their parents came from no longer exist or don't recognize their citizenship. For some (including a German-born man detained San Diego that I once came across), this can mean long periods held in immigrant detention while officials try to figure out what to do with them.

According to the pro-restriction advocacy group Center for Immigration Studies, there are other jus soli nations that are considering tightening their citizenship policies. From a paper published last summer, which also mapped and listed countries by which do and don't recognize birthright citizenship:

For example, Barbados is struggling with large amounts of immigration (relative to its size), both legal and illegal, and is contemplating ending birthright citizenship for children of illegal aliens. The country initiated an illegal alien amnesty last summer which gave illegal aliens six months to legalize their status. Anyone still in the country illegally after December 1, 2009, faces deportation. The amnesty had a number of conditions, and any illegal alien with three or more dependents could not automatically qualify.

Consequently, the question of what to do with children born to illegal aliens became central to political debate. A series of changes have been recommended by the nation’s immigration department, and one proposed change is the end of birthright citizenship.73

Antigua and Barbuda were also named by CIS as countries contemplating restrictive changes. Countries that were listed as having ended "universal birthright citizenship" since the 1980s included U.K., India, Malta, Ireland, New Zealand and most recently the Dominican Republic, with illegal immigration as "the main motivating factor in most countries."