Set the Bar Low for Immigration but High for Citizenship


Questions about immigration and citizenship are front and center now that immigration legislation is being actively debated by Congress. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744), which has passed the Senate and is currently pending in the House, contains a controversial provision which would allow undocumented immigrants currently residing in the US to legalize their immigration status and eventually to obtain U.S. Citizenship after 13 years of residency. This bill raises a question: what should be required to be a United States citizen?

Public debate often ties the issues of immigration and citizenship together, with one used as a bargaining chip for the other. While there is some overlap, the two issues need to be viewed separately. To put a common misconception to rest: one can vote in favor of an open immigration policy without supporting citizenship for all immigrants. Indeed, in order to preserve American values, citizenship standards need to be high.

Some argue that people should have the right to move and have legal residence wherever they can manage to travel and make a living. If that is so, does moving to a country entitle people to citizenship? What is citizenship, and who should have it?

One question at a time! A central aspect of citizenship is the right to vote—the right to decide who will lead one’s government and how it will govern. Another aspect is jury duty, which involves deciding the fate of accused lawbreakers. Both of these powers have life-altering implications. So being a citizen means more than just living in a country. It means having a legally recognized share in governing that country. Citizens make decisions that will affect the freedom of other individuals. The decision of who should become a citizen and therefore get to exercise these powers should not be taken lightly.

Okay, so we should take the decision seriously. Now what? Well, if we decide to develop high standards for citizenship, questions about who has the right to immigrate will become far removed from questions about citizenship. Not just anyone who moves to the US would be able to become a citizen.

What would happen if the United States had open immigration but loose standards of citizenship? If all residents voted, the country’s leaders and the policies enacted would be chosen by people who would know less about the interests of the United States, who may not have our best interests at heart, and who may not be fully invested in the future of the country. Suppose that a referendum is held to decide whether to give full college tuition to every Mexican immigrant using American tax dollars. If citizenship were too easily granted with residence, we might see many of the 11.4 million immigrants born in Mexico vote in favor of this referendum—even if they have just arrived in the country.  The US would plunge even further into debt and millions of dollars would be expropriated from taxpayers who have lived in the country for years.

But there is nothing to fear about open immigration as long as standards for citizenship are strict. There should be tough standards for who decides the fate of the country via voting. Non-citizens should be entitled to the government’s protection of all of their fundamental human rights, and they should be allowed to assemble and advocate for causes they believe in, but they should not have the right to cast a ballot deciding who will fight for their causes in government—not right away.

What about jury duty? Citizens decide not only who makes the laws, but whether or not someone is guilty of breaking the law. Voters must understand the consequences of the laws they have voted to enact. Citizens are guaranteed a trial by their peers. If any immigrant could become a citizen, the trial would be decided by people who may have no loyalty to the laws governing our country or even knowledge of the language in which these laws are written.

The right to vote is often characterized as an essential human right. Some left-wing commentators believe that voting is a sacred right, the denial of which offends against basic human dignity. But voting is not a fundamental human right. The only fundamental human rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and it is the government’s primary job to make sure that no one infringes upon these rights.

Liberty, for example, is essential to living a dignified, flourishing life. A slave has no liberty and consequently lacks both dignity and the ability to flourish. Without the right to vote, one may lack a power that others have, but this does not violate one’s human rights—especially not if the government still protects one’s basic human liberties. Human rights are fundamental rights of human beings. Civil rights, like the right to vote, are derivative rights that help protect those fundamental rights. For instance, voters can prevent abuses of fundamental rights by voting against those who promote those abuses. Everyone has the right to liberty, but the right to vote should be assigned to those who are best equipped to ensure that a government protects these liberties.

The rights of citizens are best assigned to those who are most likely to believe in and understand the political system which protects freedom. So immigrants must earn the rights of citizenship by demonstrating that understanding. Citizenship should be difficult for immigrants to obtain because those choosing the future of the government and the fate of those subject to its laws should be those who are completely invested in the country and its laws and who understand the weight of their responsibility.

A free country like the United States must have high standards for obtaining citizenship; mere residence is not enough. In order to maintain these high standards, Congress must remove “path to citizenship” from legislation in the coming immigration proposal; instead, citizenship should be granted to immigrants based on their proven understanding of and commitment to the system of laws that protects individual rights. Placing a high value on citizenship means placing a high value on the country’s laws, present and future. The responsibilities of citizens, and therefore deciding who should become a citizen, should not be taken lightly.

Creative commons-licensed image from Flickr user Grand Canyon National Park

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