We Need a Path to Citizenship for All Americans, Not Just Immigrants

Comprehensive immigration reform is on the agenda for 2013, but it should be coupled with revamped civics education, national service, and more.

New U.S. citizens take the Oath of Allegiance. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

"A path to citizenship." Get used to that phrase: We're going to be hearing it a lot in 2013. Since the Republican Party got hard electoral evidence of its problem with Latino voters (and Asian voters, and basically voters of color and immigrants in general), some GOP leaders have become highly motivated to negotiate a deal for comprehensive immigration reform.

A key part of any such deal will be whether and how undocumented immigrants can step out of the shadows and onto a much-discussed but ill-defined path to citizenship. The DREAMers -- young undocumented immigrants who, under the long-stalled DREAM Act would've been able to earn citizenship by going to the military or to college -- are the hopeful face and voice of reform advocacy. And because they embody an appealing case for reform, they may be able to lead a push that normalizes life for millions of other immigrants, documented or not.

That would be great, for them and ultimately for the entire country. But for all the attention being paid to the creation of a path, we're neglecting the destination: citizenship itself. What is this thing that needs to be earned? What, besides a bundle of rights, does the status entail and require? What do longstanding citizens take for granted and what is asked of brand-new Americans?

These kinds of questions aren't just for immigrants. Which is why we need to couple immigration reform with a citizenship agenda -- one that revitalizes the content and meaning of citizenship for everyone, and that connects the process of becoming American with the work of being American.

A robust citizenship agenda should have several core components. First, fixing the franchise. Inconsistent registration standards, unclear processes for voting, epically long lines at the ballot -- the stories are still fresh, and with the election behind us there's a narrow window for a national push to reform registration and voting procedures and to rationalize the rules of democratic participation.

Second, redoubled support for civic education. The rationale for having compulsory public schooling at all, as Justice Sandra Day O'Connor often points out, is to make citizens. But today, in an age of reading and math testing, civics courses have atrophied or disappeared altogether in many of our schools. Civic education needs more funding, more teachers, more creativity in the curriculum, and more champions in national politics.

Third, a redoubled emphasis on the importance of Americanization. Yes, that word conjures up images of 19th-century busybodies trying to Anglicize Italians, Jews, and other non-WASPs. But properly understood, Americanization -- ensuring that a diverse new generation buys into the content of our national creed  -- remains a vital, necessary endeavor. We need to recommit to it in an inclusive 21st-century way -- in classrooms and communities, and through new civic rituals that make something from our diversity.

Presented by

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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