Should All Americans Have to Earn Their Citizenship?

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With an eye toward the children of illegal immigrants, some politicians are trying to end birthright citizenship. Imagine what that might mean for the rest of us.

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Joshua Lott / Reuters

Ever since the ratification of the 14th Amendment, the rule in the United States has generally been that if you are born here, you are a citizen. In recent months, though, congressional Republicans like Steve King have called for an end to birthright citizenship. They've been fixated on people who immigrate illegally (usually, in the telling, from Mexico) to have a so-called "anchor baby" on American soil, allowing a whole clan to claw its way into citizenship.

Put aside for now the way "anchor baby" has become as mean-spirited a meme as "welfare queen" once was. Put aside the consensus among most legal scholars that an end to birthright citizenship would require not an act of Congress but a repeal of Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment. Put aside, even, the powerful stories of people like Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-winning journalist and recently admitted undocumented immigrant whose DefineAmerican.com project has given voice to many other former "anchor babies."

All of this begs a question: Why should citizenship be a matter of birth? The premise held by those who want to end birthright citizenship is that some people deserve it and some do not - that the status shouldn't be handed out automatically. Frankly, that's a premise worth considering.

What if being born here counted for exactly nothing? How would you earn citizenship if it weren't given conferred by the accident of birth? To put it more sharply: What if, in order to earn citizenship, Americans whose families have been here for generations were subject to the very same requirements as newcomers?

As it stands now, those of us who are lucky enough to be citizens by birth don't have to do much. Very little is asked of us. But let's imagine what the content of our citizenship might look like if everyone had to earn it.

Service. Under current law, undocumented Americans and nonresident noncitizens can earn citizenship if they enter the armed services - sometimes immediately upon completion of basic training. If service can justify citizenship, then perhaps citizenship should require service, whether military or civilian. National service as a prerequisite to citizenship would make the status more meaningful, and the country more cohesive.

Knowledge. One of the prime reasons for the Voting Rights Act of 1964 was the sordid history of Jim Crow literacy tests used by whites at the ballot box to screen out and intimidate black voters. (Even worse, those tests often required would-be voters to read aloud from the Constitution.) As shameful and discriminatory as those tests were, just imagine now if there were a sincere and universal requirement of civic knowledge in order to vote. Think how few non-immigrants would pass. 

Today, public understanding of our past and our system of government is pitifully low: As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has archly observed, far more Americans can name a judge on American Idol than a justice of the Supreme Court. Only a third can name all three branches of government. One simple remedy would be to update the citizenship test now given to naturalizing immigrants - and administer it to everyone. That would boost knowledge in a hurry.

Net Contribution. In the United Kingdom and a few other countries today, there is a point system for immigrants who want to become citizens, and points are awarded on basis of contribution to society. Why not institute a point system here --  for everyone? Do you give more than five percent of your adjusted gross income to charity? Points. Haven't done volunteer work in the community in a decade? Demerits. Indeed, we could have a scale of progressive contribution: The more wealth you have, the more you should be expected to contribute to the commonwealth - not through taxes only but also through time and deeds.

Periodic Renewal. As those who would end birthright citizenship might note, a date of birth is an arbitrary point at which to assume that someone is worthy of lifetime tenure as a citizen. But then, by this logic, so is the date that a person first earns citizenship. So to keep citizens from coasting, we should change the default setting and make the status revocable and renewable every ten years only by merit. If you don't qualify -- well, it's time to self-deport.

I can hear the howls of complaint. This is judgmental and punitive. It is un-American to require so much. The true essence of being American is getting to do whatever the heck you want.

It is judgmental indeed. But while it does contain reward and punishment, it doles neither out in as capricious a fashion as mere birth does. It is indeed contrary to the currently prevailing ethic of American life -- an ethic of market fundamentalism and personal libertarianism. But were any of the founding generation to return today -- or if Lincoln or the authors of the 14th Amendment  were among us now -- they would ask what had happened to the civic republican tradition of citizenship as a responsibility. For this tradition is as deeply American as raw self-seeking. Making citizenship something that must be earned instead of bestowed at birth would not be nanny-statism. It would simply be a function of state - indeed, one of the first necessary functions of state, which is to determine who may and may not be considered part of the polity.

I ask you to consider all this partially in jest and partially in earnest. What is jesting is any expectation that we would in fact enact such a citizenship agenda. But the jest is meant to make plain that some of the people now called "citizens" are far less worthy of citizenship in this civic republican sense than some of the people now called "undocumented" or "illegal" or "anchor babies." And in any case, the children of those undocumented people, born here just like any other native-born Americans, should be assumed to be no less or no more deserving of their status, no less or more capable of contribution, than anyone else.

And what I argue for in earnest is a long overdue reconsideration of the content of our citizenship. Short of my modest proposal, what are some ways to revive citizenship? We've got to do more using every institution at hand - from schools to neighborhood groups, from theaters to small businesses - to re-articulate the values, knowledge, and skills of effective citizenship. We need, adults and children alike, to engage anew in public discussion of the civic religious creed we've inherited from Jefferson and Lincoln and King; of the collective character needed to temper the atomizing individualism of American life; and the common culture needed to keep our centrifugally diverse market society from flying apart.

As an easy first step, the next time someone uses denial of citizenship as a weapon or brandishes the special status conferred upon him by the accident of birth, ask him this: What have you done lately to earn it?

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Eric Liu is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of A Chinaman's Chance, co-author of The Gardens of Democracy, and the creator of Citizen University. He was a speechwriter and deputy domestic-policy adviser for President Bill Clinton.

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