No one was surprised to learn that Donald Trump was wrong when he declared that the United States is “the only country in the world” that grants birthright citizenship. The U.S. President rarely lets the facts get in the way of an opportunity to score political points on the backs of immigrants.
Unsurprisingly, he was also wrong in suggesting he could revoke U.S. birthright citizenship, which is entrenched in the U.S. Constitution, with the simple stroke of his own pen. But on the eve of midterm elections that will determine control of the U.S. Congress, stoking outrage toward illegal immigrants who give birth on American soil is par for the course for Mr. Trump.
Unfortunately for Canada’s Conservatives, who adopted a resolution at their August convention calling for an end to “birth tourism” in this country, Mr. Trump’s outburst now risks tainting our own debate about birthright citizenship. Even before the U.S. President evoked ending birthright citizenship in his country, opponents seized on the passage of the Tory resolution to score points of their own. New Democratic Leader Jagmeet Singh attacked the “division and hate” peddled by Conservatives. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, accused the Tories of seeking to “strip people born in Canada” of their Canadian passports.
To be clear, any attempt by the Conservatives to scapegoat certain immigrants for political gain should be condemned. But so should Liberal and NDP attempts to tar the Tories with labels they don’t deserve merely for raising concerns about a phenomenon that undermines the integrity of our immigration laws. Birth tourism, the practice of foreign women coming to Canada to have their babies merely to obtain a Canadian passport for their offspring, is by all accounts a real and growing problem. Is it a big enough problem to warrant an end to birthright citizenship here? Unfortunately, we don’t have good enough data to know. Statistics Canada data on births to non-resident mothers provide an incomplete picture and conflict with evidence reported by hospitals.
In the United States, birthright citizenship emerged as a constitutional principle in the wake of the U.S. Civil War to ensure that freed slaves were entitled to all the rights and privileges of white citizens. It is rooted, hence, in that country’s long struggle against slavery and racial discrimination. Any attempt to deprive those born on American soil of U.S. citizenship would not only require a near-impossible constitutional amendment, it would needlessly reopen old wounds.
In Canada, the issue is not nearly as fraught with symbolism as it is south of the border. Birthright citizenship is a feature of our immigration law, not the Constitution, and can be changed with an act of Parliament. What’s more, federal lawyers recently argued that Canadian citizenship could not be claimed by the Canadian-born children of Russian spies, insisting that even this Liberal government believes the principle of birthright citizenship has its limits.
In most cases, foreigners who travel to Canada to give birth are not desperate, nor are their children at risk of becoming stateless, since they would inherit their parents’ citizenship, anyway. Most appear willing to pay hefty non-resident medical fees to have their babies delivered at Canadian hospitals or stay at for-profit “birth houses” catering to Chinese tourists.
Canada would not be the first country to end birthright citizenship, in part to end the practice of birth tourism. Several developed countries, including Australia, have done so in recent decades. As Canada becomes one of the last “rich” countries outside of the United States to grant automatic citizenship to those born on its soil, we should expect the incidence of birth tourism to increase in the future. That suggests we need to be prepared to have this debate, sooner or later.
The August Conservative resolution called for legislation to eliminate birthright citizenship “unless one of the parents of the child born in Canada is a Canadian citizen or permanent resident of Canada.” Leader Andrew Scheer insisted the policy was aimed strictly at ending “abuse” of our immigration laws, adding: “Conservatives recognize that there are many Canadians who have been born in Canada by parents who have come here to stay and have contributed greatly to our country. I will not end the core policy that facilitates this.”
It would be premature to change our immigration laws before we evaluate alternatives, such as stricter visa requirements, to prevent birth tourism. Ottawa also needs to collect better data to determine the scope of the problem. But we should not let the spectre of Mr. Trump stop us from having a debate about our immigration laws that, if we wait too long, could become inevitable.