New Zealand and Birthright Citizenship

This is the fifth in a series of articles exploring island societies to examine how issues affecting small isolated communities can help us understand the world as a whole.

Emily Hahn

When the New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson was entrusted to bring J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings novels to the screen, it was a foregone conclusion that Jackson would choose his homeland as the backdrop for the epic tales.  The enchanting island nation in the South Pacific boasts stunning mountains with magnificent fjords and valleys that create a perfect setting for hobbits who once roamed the fictional Middle-earth. The natural beauty of this temperate land rivals other spectacular vistas carved by ancient glaciers. However, unlike beautiful sights found in Norway or Alaska, New Zealand landscapes are a touch more magical, possibly due to its remote location on the opposite side of the globe.


Hidden from the natural beauty of New Zealand is a shameful history of colonialism that parallels much of the other “New World” nations that came under British rule.  Murdering countless indigenous Maori people, stealing their land, and relegating them to second-class status are familiar themes scripted in the annals of history.


When walking the streets of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, there appears to be harmony between the diverse ethnic groups that inhabit this remote nation. White, Maori, and Asian children wearing traditional British school uniforms are seen playing together in the playgrounds.  There are numerous citizens of mixed ethnicity working at the variety of quaint shops and restaurants that line the thriving city.  However, there seems to be an unwritten rule of segregation, where the whites take up more prestigious professions, the ones requiring business suits, while the majority of the menial labor appears to be performed by the Maoris.


It’s no surprise that the ubiquitous disease of racism has crossed the vast oceans to infect even the people of this idyllic land.  Taika Waititi is a New Zealand film director of numerous acclaimed movies including Thor of Ragnarok (2017).  In a 2018 interview with Dazed and Confused magazine, he stated that New Zealand is “racist as f**k.”  Waititi’s father is Maori, and his mother is Jewish, and he recalls that when he worked at a grocery store growing up, he was not permitted to touch the cash register.  Early in his career, he had to use his mother’s maiden name (Cohen) to have his work taken seriously. Waititi’s assessment of his homeland’s culture is unlikely to be an isolated opinion, as the Human Rights Commission has reported that the incidence of racial discrimination in New Zealand is high and increasing.


New Zealand remains a predominantly white nation, with about three-quarters of the citizens being of European descent.  The second largest group is the Maori, who make up approximately 15 percent of the population.  It may be assumed that racism in this nation exists only between these two largest groups. Furthermore, immigrants who are often targets of racism in other countries would appear to be of an insignificant number in this isolated land that has a thousand miles of ocean serving as a “wall.”  This assumption, however, is wrong.  The number of Asians in New Zealand is increasing, and efforts are being taken to limit both legal and illegal immigration of this group to New Zealand. For example, New Zealand is one of the countries that recently revoked jus soli or birthright citizenship.


Jus soli, Latin for “rights of soil,” allows citizenship to anyone born in a country, even if the parents are neither citizens nor legal permanent residents. Approximately 30 countries, mostly in the Western Hemisphere, offer birthright citizenship. These nations typically have a long history of welcoming and encouraging immigration.  However, the number of countries accepting jus soli is shrinking, especially for industrialized nations that are attractive to immigrants. Australia eliminated birthright citizenship in 1986, and New Zealand followed in 2005.  Some speculate that anti-Asian sentiments motivated New Zealand lawmakers.


The Chinese have a long history of being treated as third-class residents in New Zealand.  In 1908, a law was passed forbidding any Chinese to gain citizenship.  In 1951, this law was repealed, but only 5% of Chinese applying for citizenship was approved.  In 2002, Prime Minister Helen Clark made a formal apology to the Chinese community for past discriminatory efforts.  Nevertheless, this acknowledgment did not deter the New Zealand government from eliminating birthright citizenship.


The Ding and Ye lawsuit in 2005 has been cited as a significant factor motivating New Zealanders to abandon birthright citizenship. Yueying Ding and Wei Guang Ye were Chinese nationals living illegally in New Zealand, and parents of 3 young children who are New Zealand citizens through jus soli.  When the New Zealand authorities tried to deport the parents, a lawsuit was instigated on the basis that the Chinese parents needed to remain with their New Zealand born children.  Critics of birthright citizenship complained of the purposeful act of foreigners who overstay their visas solely to bear children on their soil. Others argued that eliminating jus soli was merely an act of racism targeting the Chinese and other ethnic minorities.


Casual observers of the birthright debate may feel that the practice is antiquated and unnecessary. Most industrialized nations have abandoned the practice, as it is believed to incentivize unwanted individuals to gain entry into a country’s social programs.  New Zealand, for instance, provides low-cost health care and education to all its citizens.  What muddies the debate is when racism and ethnic nationalism enters the discussion. Moderates and liberals are hesitant to support any measures that may energize the white nationalists who cast scapegoats as culprits of their economic woes.


In New Zealand, a country where a nearly endless ocean protects its borders from illegal immigration, the ethnic majority is determined to defend their sovereignty and identity from unwanted foreigners.  When a nation that has no neighbors is concerned with unwelcome visitors, it seems inevitable that the United States will enact similar legislation. However, the birthright debate is a political ploy rather than a catalyst for law enactment in the U.S. Birthright citizenship is embedded in the 14th amendment, and the U.S. Constitution is nearly immutable. Instead, “birthright” may serve as a litmus test used to categorize politicians and polarize the citizens. Unfortunately, Americans are incapable of building a wall high enough to “protect” its southern border to pacify the thirst of those who choose to demonize minorities.