An end of birthright citizenship in the US and Canada would close more doors for Chinese parents

  • Chauncey Jung writes that recent attacks on birthright citizenship are happening as China’s metropolises toughen standards for migrant workers
  • For decades, migration has been the key to a better life for many Chinese, and these shifts will hit the middle class especially hard
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2018, 3:19am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2018, 10:24am

The world seems to have taken birthright citizenship in the United States for granted. Ever since the case of United States v Wong Kim Ark in 1898, in which the son of Chinese immigrants successfully challenged his denial of entry following a trip outside the US, the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution has been interpreted as granting citizenship by birth to every child born in the US, regardless of race, ethnicity or parents’ nationality.

Donald Trump’s recent remarks may be a wake-up call. In an interview last week, Trump vowed to use an executive order to end the US’ tradition of birthright citizenship. If this were the case, newborn children of immigrants, even those with legal status in the US, would be denied US citizenship.

It is obvious that Trump’s executive order, if issued, would face harsh media criticism and legal challenges. Many argue that the 14th Amendment still safeguards birthright citizenship for all newborn babies on American soil. Be it a targeted policy against foreign nationals’ birth tourism or simply a reinforcement for Trump’s “America first” views, it clearly shows Trump’s hostility towards foreign nationals living and working in the US, regardless of their actual immigration status.

However, this is not the only attack on birthright citizenship; the opposition Conservative Party of Canada has announced its support for ending the practice as well. Unlike in the US, changes regarding the Canadian Citizenship Act might not necessarily trigger a constitutional challenge. If the Conservative Party wins the 2019 federal election, the new government in Canada will have a better chance of ending the country’s birthright citizenship policy.

Many readers might be familiar with the change in birthplace permanent residency in Hong Kong, after the Leung Chun-ying government halted birth tourism by putting in place a “zero-quota” policy to stop mainland women from giving birth in Hong Kong. The policy came into effect in 2013 after a public backlash against pregnant mainland Chinese women taking up Hong Kong’s precious medical resources and welfare benefits.

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The US and Canada have also experienced issues with so-called birth tourism. In September, the Post reported on Chinese birth tourism to Canada as a legal channel for Chinese middle-class families to open new avenues for their newborn children. Similar businesses also flourish in the US as lucrative “maternity hotels” serve Chinese tourists giving birth to children in North America.

Despite officials cracking down on these practices, there is no sign of a stop to these so-called anchor babies. The incentives remain huge not only for illegal immigrants crossing US borders, but also for middle-class families in China. The choice is not a difficult one, as children born in America and Canada are entitled to many more opportunities than children born in the People’s Republic of China. Despite China’s rapid economic growth, their gaps in welfare, education, medical treatment and social development remain huge when compared to developed countries.

Even if these American-born children of Chinese parents want to settle in their parents’ native country and become Chinese citizens, the path is much simpler than becoming a naturalised Canadian or American citizen. All they have to do is to give up their American or Canadian citizenship and they will inherit Chinese citizenship from their parents.

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These Chinese families considering expensive birth tourism trips have more than economic benefits to think about. As a country under the hukou household registration system, Chinese citizens’ access to benefits is restricted based not only on their economic status, but also their official place of residence.

As a country of dramatic inequality, Chinese citizens are treated very differently depending on the hukou they are registered under. A Beijing hukou-holder will be entitled to more benefits than an Anhui rural area hukou-holder. The Anhui hukou-holder will consequently receive education of lower quality, medical treatment of lower standards and, sadly, less economic opportunity than his compatriots in Beijing.

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Domestic migration has been a major factor pushing China’s economic boom over the past 40 years, with talented individuals and migrant workers flooding into Chinese metropolitan areas such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, not only for higher incomes, but also for a chance to change their hukou status.

However, cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are starting to see migrant workers as burdens instead of contributors to the regional economy. In 2017, Beijing forced out low-end population through the violent demolition of their homes. Facing the same problems, Shanghai made its plan to limit the city’s population to 25 million by 2035.

Watch: Beijing’s eviction of migrants in 2017

Chinese officials’ conservative attitudes have made it more difficult for individuals to obtain hukou, regardless of their education and wealth level. It takes at least seven years to obtain a Beijing hukou, roughly the same amount of time as in Shanghai, provided that they fulfil a series of requirements, such as contributing to social security. For mainland Chinese looking to become Hong Kong permanent residents, that process would be at least seven years of living in the city legally.

It’s time to tear down the borders with mainland China

While these restrictions may not apply to ultra-rich individuals who can clear their path through connections and wealth, regular individuals see huge hurdles to reaching the middle-class status they hope to achieve. The burden also passes to their children: in China, children’s hukou is not determined by the city they are born in, but the hukou their parents hold at the time.

Being an anchor baby means automatically acquiring many things that one’s parents have to work hard for, day after day, for years. However, if developed Western countries go through with plans to eliminate birthright citizenship, it will be harder for those Chinese middle-class families to change their newborn children’s fates.

Chauncey Jung is a China internet specialist who previously worked for various Chinese internet companies in Beijing