Race, DNA, and American Citizenship


Written by Joseph Dunsay. After earning a Masters of Science in Ecology and Evolution, Joseph Dunsay became a science writer for international audiences. Find more Jewrotica writing by Joseph here.

Rated PG
A Jewish same-sex couple who became parents outside the USA is suing to have America recognize the birthright citizenship of their child. The pair became fathers with the help of donor eggs and a surrogate mother who gave birth to their sons a few minutes apart in September 2016 in Canada. One father is American, and the other father is Israeli. American parents can obtain birthright citizenship for their biological children born in other lands, but only one of the twin sons has DNA from his American father. The USA refuses to grant birthright citizenship to the other son, despite the Canadian birth certificate that says he was born the son of both fathers. The family now lives in California.

It turns out that Jews are not the only people to debate about who is born within the tribe. When a diaspora American becomes a parent in a foreign country, the birth certificate can list him as the father even if the baby does not have his DNA. The rules for American birthright citizenship outside the USA say that a baby with two American parents can get birthright citizenship regardless of residency and a baby with one American parent can get birthright citizenship if the American parent had lived in America for 2 years over the age of 14 and  5 years total. Theoretically, a diaspora American community could retain birthright citizenship for 2,000 years without ever stepping foot on American soil provided the members of the community do not intermarry.

Laws regarding diaspora communities are clear cut, but the relationships between homeland and diaspora communities that motivate these laws are more nuanced. Discussions of these laws often bring up race and ethnicity. Plenty of sociologists say that race is a social construct, and many biologists say that the human race is the only race. To support their position, biologists point to the relative genetic homogeneity within the human species compared to the genetic diversity within closely related species, and sociologists mention how the same individual can change races if one applies the racial classification rules common in different societies to him. An ethnicity is a group of people with a shared culture and ties to a geographic location. A race is a group of people that are perceived to share common physiological differences.

The popularity of home DNA testing for ancestry has created a large database for population geneticists to study. One analysis of Americans living in the USA compared self-reported racial and ethnic identity with DNA evidence of ancestry. Very few Americans identify ethnically or racially as Americans. They tend to live in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee where the majority of the European-American gene pool comes from the British Isles. It is more common for Americans to identify as Latino, African-American, or European-American. Researchers analysed the DNA of subjects who identified as a member of only one of these groups to infer their ancestry and highlight historic patterns of mixing between the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere and the diaspora communities from Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

The results of the study reflect historic laws and cultural norms regarding the classification of mixed race individuals and the relationship between gender, race, and the flow of DNA from one gene pool to anther gene pool. As with all population genetics studies, they should be taken with a grain of salt, because a different statistical technique could yield different results. There is no “original ancestor” from Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, or the Western Hemisphere to compare modern people to. The computer model labeled stretches of DNA as European, sub-Saharan African, or  Native American in origin based on the data from living people, but a different computer model or a different database could yield slightly different results. The important lesson from this study is that many people who identify as a member of one race or ethnicity have mixed ancestry. These categories are based on identity, not biology.

Although those identifying as European-American were least likely to have DNA from another group, about 1 in 10 European-Americans living in the South had some African-American ancestry due to mixing that happened about 4 generations ago on average. Americans identifying with a single group who have mixed ancestry from Europe and sub-Saharan Africa tended to identify as European-American if less than 20% of their DNA was from sub-Saharan Africa and as African-American if more than 50% of their DNA was from sub-Saharan Africa. About 1/4 of the African-American gene pool came from Europe and 3/4 came from sub-Saharan Africa with mixing occurring about 7 generations ago on average. Hardly any of the DNA in African-Americans and European-Americans came from Native Americans, but subjects identifying as Latino had Native American, European, and sub-Saharan African ancestry. The ratios of these ancestral groups varied with the nation of origin of the subject. The Latino American gene pool was 18.0% Native American, 65.1% European, and 6.2% sub-Saharan African.

With so few Americans identifying ethnically or racially as American, and so many Americans with mixed ancestry identifying as a member of one race or ethnic group, it is illogical to let DNA determine birthright citizenship. The parents listed on a birth certificate are the people responsible for raising a baby. If a diaspora American requests birthright citizenship for his baby, one can assume that he intends to pass down his American culture to the child. A law that grants birthright citizenship upon request based on birth certificates would be similar to the Reform Jewish policy of requiring public affirmations of Jewish identity to make someone a Jew by birth. Canada acknowledges both men as the fathers of both sons. American immigration officials should do the same.

After earning a Masters of Science in Ecology and Evolution, Joseph Dunsay became a science writer for international audiences. His LGBT erotic e-book launched in the summer of 2015.