What US birthright citizenship means to me

Until three years ago, my wife and I were like a lot of immigrants: Drawn to the U.S. by jobs better than what we could find at home, we saw ourselves as outsiders – temporary resident aliens, as the government called us.

Even living in Washington, I followed U.S. politics with detachment, the way you’d watch a football game between two schools in states you’ve never been to. When our friends back home in Canada asked if we planned to stay, we’d shrug and joke about the weather being better.

And then our daughter was born. I went to the District of Columbia vital records office to pick up her birth certificate; they would have mailed it, but I didn’t want to wait. What I remember, tucked among the many indelible moments of her first few weeks, is looking at that piece of paper and feeling excited at her being an American. She belonged here, just as much as anyone did. And if she belonged, then maybe we did too.

As the country argues the merits of ending birthright citizenship – Would that stem illegal immigration? Would it require a constitutional amendment? How would it affect the Republican Party’s electoral prospects? How does this all tie in to the legacy of slavery? – something intangible is getting overlooked: For a nation built on assimilation, it’s hard to think of anything that better instills a sense of common purpose, of identifying with and caring about the place you live, than having your child be a citizen of that place.

Of course, the immigrants most people have in mind when they argue against birthright citizenship probably aren’t Canadians who sit at keyboards. (Though apparently even we aren’t immune to discrimination.) But providing an incentive to integrate, a reason to adopt the values and customs of your new country as if they were your own, ought to be just as important for people whose foreignness helps drive public sentiment against them.

If Republicans are worried that undocumented Mexican immigrants are changing the fabric of the U.S., then weakening the means by which they assimilate makes little sense.

The counterargument is that severing future immigrants’ emotional connection to the U.S., preventing their children from automatically becoming citizens, helps stem their flow into the country and eases the removal of those who make it in.

That’s a dangerous argument, because however this debate ends, the U.S. will still need immigrants. And immigrants will still oblige: People like me will still move here, and so will the people who so bother Donald Trump.

What stands to change is whether the mechanisms that help transform immigrants into Americans get dismantled. The risk of repealing birthright citizenship is that immigrants’ new sense of identity will be eroded, along with all the good that identity entails for their new home.

Soon after our daughter was born, my wife and I got our green cards. Last summer, our son was born, making our family one-half American. Having put off buying a house on the grounds that it would tie us to the country, we realized the idea no longer bothered us, and we became homeowners.

When I write about U.S. politics now, it feels more personal, less clinical. In two years, after having lived in the country for a decade, my wife and I will be eligible to apply for citizenship, the ability to vote. I’m starting to care who sits on the city council.

When my wife and I go back to Canada on holiday now, our friends still ask if we'll stay in the U.S. We answer by saying that our kids are American, then we shrug; that seems to cover it.

We still joke about the weather being better, but less now, because that feels like bragging. And we’re still Canadian after all.

Christopher Flavelle is a Bloomberg View columnist. Email him at cflavelle@bloomberg.net.