While Donald Trump rallies the faithful before a mid-term election by sending 5,000 troops to the Mexican border to fend off an immigrant caravan, he also proposes a bolder move — striking down jus soli, the right to citizenship by birth derived from common law. The principle guarantees that a child born on US soil is automatically a full citizen, irrespective of the citizenship status of its parents. Trump’s US seems to be determined to follow the trail blazed by the other great democracy, India. In 2004, India abolished jus soli in response to fears about mass immigration from Bangladesh. The controversy about the National Register of Citizens in Assam, which initially excluded 40 lakh individuals, is the long tail of an event which included the end of jus soli.
India is the only big country to take this step (its sole fellow traveller is Malta), and the rest of the world supports jus soli, though it may be conditional. With the exception of Chile and a few minor states, the Americas support unconditional jus soli. In the US, where the 14th amendment to the constitution guarantees citizenship by birth, this has been a powerful driver of the idea of America. Even the child of undocumented parents has a fighting chance to leave the underclass behind and shoot for the stars. But now that America has taken a sharp turn to the right, jus soli, which hinges only on the location of birth and does not discriminate on other counts like country of familial origin or colour, could be read by Trump’s constituency as a tool for the browning of America.
Of course, Trump will face legal challenges, since millions of citizens, the children of immigrants who were not citizens when they were born, would be disenfranchised by such a move. Indeed, many of them would be found to be achievers, and could mount a successful class action against a reading down of the 14th amendment. But the message would have gone out nevertheless, that in the future, the US may not remain as bravely welcoming of outside talent as it has been. Citizenship has been a mixed story, thanks to the history of slavery and the disenfranchisement of Native Americans. But it must be remembered that the end of white America coincided with the emergence of a superpower. If Trump tries to hold off the browning of America, the country would simply lose the plot.