Commentary by: Jamie Liew in Ottawa, ON
There’s been a lot of talk about getting rid of birthright citizenship in Canada and the United States. President Donald Trump announced that he’ll issue an executive order and the Conservative Party of Canada passed a motion that, should they be the next federal government, birthright citizenship will be no more.
In the U. S., the president will have to contend with the fact that he can’t just unilaterally eliminate a right in the 14th Amendment of the constitution.
In Canada, birthright citizenship can be eliminated simply by amending or repealing parts of the Citizenship Act.
In both countries, the preoccupation with ending birthright citizenship is tied to the argument that migrants are engaging in “birth tourism” and challenging the integrity of citizenship. But the facts say otherwise.
As Andrew Griffith, former director general at Citizenship and Immigration Canada points out, fewer than 0.1 percent of total births in Canada in the last 10 years (except 2012) involved births of children to foreign mothers. Griffiths concludes, “An impartial observer would conclude that there is currently no business case for changing Canada’s birth policy.”
Aside from the business case, what’s not talked about is how the elimination of birthright citizenship would affect not just migrants, but all of us. Undoubtedly, such a policy would increase the number of stateless persons in Canada.
“The elimination of birthright citizenship would affect the most vulnerable the greatest”
Every person born in Canada would have to apply for citizenship. More tax dollars would be needed to process the applications. Clerks would suddenly have the power to make substantive and legal determinations about the status of every person who applies for citizenship. Like any administrative system, mistakes would be made. Bad or wrong decisions would be challenged in the courts at great expense to both the state and people affected. People would struggle with the fact that they are stateless in the interim.
Being stateless has serious implications.
Stateless persons have difficulty accessing education, employment, health care, social services and freedom of movement. Simple things like obtaining a bank account, cellphone account or registering birth, marriage or death are complicated, if not impossible. Stateless persons would be subject to arrest, detention and potential removal to places they may never have been to before.
The elimination of birthright citizenship would affect the most vulnerable the greatest: the indigent, less educated, those with mental illness, children in precarious family situations or wards of the state. These are the people who may not have the appropriate paperwork or proof that they do qualify for citizenship or they won’t have support for obtaining citizenship.
This one policy would create an expensive social problem for the state.
The elimination of birthright citizenship is then not an act to preserve or protect the integrity of citizenship. The policy is a dividing tool that fuels discrimination against those of different races and socio-economic classes. It’s a tool to delegitimize persons who have a genuine and effective link to Canada. It would create barriers to important rights that come with citizenship, including the right to vote.
We only need to look at how stripping citizenship and the denial of citizenship in other places of the world have encouraged discrimination, persecution, and violence against stateless persons. For example, the oppression of and the genocide against Rohingya was precipitated by their denial of citizenship in Myanmar, a country they called home for generations.
Canadians should be cautious when considering the idea to get rid of birthright citizenship. It wouldn’t stop migrants from coming. Instead of making it harder to get citizenship, we should trust our well-oiled immigration system to deal with the entry of persons within our country.
Such a policy would not build confidence in the integrity of Canadian citizenship. Instead, citizenship would be more precarious than ever before.
Canadians should also be mindful that Canada has signed onto the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, both of which obligate Canada not to create situations of statelessness.
My father was born stateless because the state he was born into didn’t confer birthright citizenship. It affected his opportunity for education, employment, and his mental health.
Being a child of a previously stateless person, I’m proof enough that welcoming stateless persons to Canada with the conferral of citizenship is the best way to build a nation.
Jamie Liew is an immigration lawyer and an associate professor at the Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, and a contributor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, which is based at the University of Winnipeg.
This piece is published under arrangement with the Asian Pacific Post.