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

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

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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.

Fourth, a revitalized national-service movement that amplifies existing programs for young people like AmeriCorps but also does much more to activate Americans of every age to serve. The Aspen Institute has launched the Franklin Project to push national service onto the elite political and cultural agenda. What's needed is a deeply local counterpart. Returning veterans can be a particular focus: Plugging them into the civic life of their hometowns is a win-win.

And fifth, using government in savvy and catalytic ways to foster orders of magnitude more citizen-driven social innovation. The Obama Administration has already started doing this, as have some congressional Republicans. One approach could be to seed a public-private "C Prize" in the spirit of the X Prize: a set of sizable challenge awards that stimulate creative forms of citizen problem-solving at the local level. Meanwhile, there is now a generation of social entrepreneurs whose nonprofit ventures like City Year or the Harlem Children's Zone have made positive civic impact. Let's disseminate that know-how to more people by creating a network of civic "extension agents" akin to those in agricultural states who spread effective methods of planting and farming.

A great citizenship agenda, like an optimal immigration-reform deal, should appeal to both right and left. Because such an agenda will encourage people to govern themselves more actively rather than relying on the state as the solution of first resort, conservatives will appreciate it. Because it connects the challenges and experiences of immigrant communities to the core of national life, progressives will value it.

Moreover, when the so-called fiscal cliff and debt-ceiling fights have finally ended, either we will need a period of serious reconciliation or we will be on a collective high about a new politics of compromise. Either way, the time will be right to promote a common citizenship agenda.

The time is right in a bigger sense too. The face and voice of America are changing more rapidly than our national self-story and institutions. Globalization, migration, technology, and the speed of media -- these forces are centrifugal. We need a new American centripetal force, a movement of politics and culture and civic religion. Citizenship in a democracy can't be just a matter of law; it has to be way of life. So yes, let's get more immigrants on the path to citizenship -- then let's make sure the destination is more than an afterthought.

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Eric Liu is a correspondent for The Atlantic, the 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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