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.