Commentary Magazine


Topic: citizenship

What Should Citizenship Mean?

Immigration is shaping up to be one of the major issues of the 2016 presidential campaign, and President Barack Obama’s fait accompli, legal or otherwise, to give five million illegal aliens amnesty has permanently changed both the debate and the scale of the problem. There were, according to conservative estimates, 11.2 million illegal aliens living in the United States as of November 2014. In addition, illegal immigrants give birth to several hundred thousand children each year, all of who automatically become Americans because of birthright, jus soli citizenship.

Read More

Immigration is shaping up to be one of the major issues of the 2016 presidential campaign, and President Barack Obama’s fait accompli, legal or otherwise, to give five million illegal aliens amnesty has permanently changed both the debate and the scale of the problem. There were, according to conservative estimates, 11.2 million illegal aliens living in the United States as of November 2014. In addition, illegal immigrants give birth to several hundred thousand children each year, all of who automatically become Americans because of birthright, jus soli citizenship.

Personally, I’m in favor of immigration—legal immigration—but have little tolerance for illegal immigration, and find it especially noxious that the U.S. government is effectively allowing illegal immigrants to cut in front of the line in having their immigration status resolved.

Missing in the immigration debate, however, is what citizenship should mean: Is citizenship just a matter of a passport and taxes, or does it confer an ideological contract? About a decade ago, as part of a conference in the Netherlands, I had the opportunity to sit down with city councilmen in Rotterdam to discuss assimilation. One basic question stumped our hosts: What does it mean to be Dutch? Underlying their ability to answer was cultural equivalence: How could anyone require competence in the Dutch language? Knowledge of Dutch history? Dutch liberal values?

In the United States, many immigrants, and especially illegal immigrants, seek a better life—and economic opportunity, and many also seek to support their relatives back in their country of origin. Far fewer seem to choose America for the values it represents. Indeed, too many seem to treat those values with disdain.

It’s all well and good to give five million illegals amnesty, but there has yet to be a public debate on why they have come and what their eventual citizenship should mean once they are on that path. The question is not only relevant for economic migrants making the trek from Latin America, but also for the flood of East Asian, African, and Middle Eastern migrants.

It’s easy to appreciate multiculturalism: It’s far easier to sample the world’s cuisines, fashions, and celebrations in the United States than anywhere else. But at the same time, multiculturalism is not always positive. Different cultures embrace different values and think in different ways. Oppressing women and girls, for example, may be common in Saudi Arabia, but it is not acceptable in the United States. The caste system may exist in India, but no Indian should be untouchable in the United States, nor would the caste system be an excuse for housing or other discrimination among Americans of Indian descent. Many Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africans engage in female genital mutilation. There should be no cultural exemption for that practice within the United States, nor should the United States accept the slavery which exists in Mauritania, nor the exploitation of child labor that occurs in Bangladesh or China, just because “that’s the way it has always been” back in those countries.

While multiculturalism on balance is positive, so too is cohesion and assimilation. How does assimilation balance with cultural identity? Cultural identity is the patina and may influence the home, but assimilation should be based on the common core of values that makes America exceptional. The values enshrined in the founding documents of the United States should not be some à la carte buffet. The Constitution should trump any religious or other cultural text when the rights and principles enshrined come in conflict. Women and girls from conservative Muslim countries should have the same rights and freedoms as any other American woman or girl. If their fathers, brothers, or uncles do not like it, then that family doesn’t belong in the United States, and they could just as easily migrate elsewhere.

Likewise, America was founded on a notion of individual liberty and smaller, restrained government. To flee a socialist state and then seek the same sort of government direction in the United States belies the notion that individual liberty matters to the migrant. Likewise, to flee sectarian war in Yemen, Syria, or Iraq but retain biases if not hatred toward others of a different religion suggests an export of a problem rather than a new beginning.

So what to do? There are no easy answers, but the question about what American citizenship should mean should be a preliminary discussion before any amnesty, change of status, or reform of the system. A secondary debate is how the common core of citizenship should be taught. The bare bones citizenship test—how many states, how many senators, when is Independence Day celebrated, etc.—does little to promote citizenship. Can citizenship be taught in a public education system presided over by so many seemingly embarrassed by America’s legacy? Candidates have become so caught up in numbers of immigrants and process, but they too often avoid the elephant in the room: What does it mean to be an American? What values must all Americans share, and what values should be disqualifiers? The 2016 Republican field is as large as it is diverse, and the Democratic field is heating up. Candidates may like to avoid the tough questions, but with both parties having started the United States down the slippery slope toward immigration amnesty, perhaps it actually pays those who wish to lead the free world to define what it should mean to be an American.

Read Less

Citizenship and Obama’s Opposition

In a sign that President Obama has shifted tactics as he heads into the lame duck period of his administration, his audience was treated to an approving quotation of his predecessor during the course of his commencement address delivered yesterday at the Ohio State University. The quote was from Bush’s own OSU graduation speech in 2002 at which he said the country “needs full time citizens” rather than “spectators and occasional voters.” It’s a timeless message in any democracy, but while most of Obama’s remarks struck a similarly anodyne tone, within it was a full-throated defense of government that deserves some unpacking.

At the heart of his address was an attack on the idea that “government is the source of our problems.” In response to this stereotypical straw man, Obama said the answer to such sentiments is a defense of collective action. Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see the president’s agenda is to blame conservatives who are suspicious of big government for the dysfunction in Washington and to claim they are the obstacle to the grand liberal project of “rebuild[ing] a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.” But while any call for more participation in our democratic process is to be welcomed, calling his conservative critics “cynics” who are impeding progress misreads the intent of the Founders he cites. They created a system designed to place curbs on the ambitions of politicians like Barack Obama. If contemporary Americans are suspicious of his big government projects, they are acting in the spirit of those who wrote our Constitution, not as self-interested elites trying to harm the people.

Read More

In a sign that President Obama has shifted tactics as he heads into the lame duck period of his administration, his audience was treated to an approving quotation of his predecessor during the course of his commencement address delivered yesterday at the Ohio State University. The quote was from Bush’s own OSU graduation speech in 2002 at which he said the country “needs full time citizens” rather than “spectators and occasional voters.” It’s a timeless message in any democracy, but while most of Obama’s remarks struck a similarly anodyne tone, within it was a full-throated defense of government that deserves some unpacking.

At the heart of his address was an attack on the idea that “government is the source of our problems.” In response to this stereotypical straw man, Obama said the answer to such sentiments is a defense of collective action. Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see the president’s agenda is to blame conservatives who are suspicious of big government for the dysfunction in Washington and to claim they are the obstacle to the grand liberal project of “rebuild[ing] a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.” But while any call for more participation in our democratic process is to be welcomed, calling his conservative critics “cynics” who are impeding progress misreads the intent of the Founders he cites. They created a system designed to place curbs on the ambitions of politicians like Barack Obama. If contemporary Americans are suspicious of his big government projects, they are acting in the spirit of those who wrote our Constitution, not as self-interested elites trying to harm the people.

Here’s the key passage from the president’s address:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.

We have never been a people who place all of our faith in government to solve our problems; we shouldn’t want to. But we don’t think the government is the source of all our problems, either. Because we understand that this democracy is ours. And as citizens, we understand that it’s not about what America can do for us; it’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government. And, Class of 2013, you have to be involved in that process.

The founders trusted us with this awesome authority. We should trust ourselves with it, too. Because when we don’t, when we turn away and get discouraged and cynical, and abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who will gladly claim it. That’s how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda; and policies detached from what middle-class families face every day; the well-connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business — and then whisper in government’s ear for special treatment that you don’t get.

That’s how a small minority of lawmakers get cover to defeat something the vast majority of their constituents want. That’s how our political system gets consumed by small things when we are a people called to do great things — like rebuild a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.

Class of 2013, only you can ultimately break that cycle. Only you can make sure the democracy you inherit is as good as we know it can be. But it requires your dedicated, and informed, and engaged citizenship. And that citizenship is a harder, higher road to take, but it leads to a better place. It’s how we built this country — together.

There are two big problems here.

One is the attempt to characterize opponents as people who are exploiting or fomenting cynicism about government in order to thwart majority rule for the sake of the privileged. This is the same old class warfare argument that flies in the face of claims that the president is the adult in the room while those on the other side are extremists who have debased our national discourse with attacks on his legitimacy.

More important is the notion that there is something illegitimate about fear of growing the power of government.

After all, contrary to the myth cherished by liberals that the Tea Party was a top-down affair in which a few extremist protesters were manipulated by a small group of wealthy conservatives, it was in fact a broad-based grass roots movement. Though its moment of greatest popularity may have passed, it is not the “the well connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business,” but ordinary Americans who worry about higher taxes and the creation of programs like ObamaCare that expand the scope and power of government.

Just as crucial, it is the crony capitalists who donated vast sums to the president’s campaigns that we find can count on being able to “whisper in government’s ear for special treatment that you don’t get.” A president that gave us the Solyndra boondoggle and whose Cabinet is increasingly populated with billionaire bundlers like Penny Pritzker is in no position to assert that it is his opponents that are unrepresentative.

After all, the fear of tyranny Obama cited isn’t an invention of the Koch brothers or the Tea Party, it can be found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and most of the founders. They worried that our “experiment in self-rule” would fail specifically because of over-reaching on the part of the government or a blind obedience to the vagaries of public opinion. Our Constitution was written by men who understood that the key principle of American democracy must be a system of checks and balances that was designed to frustrate people like Obama who want to shove their big ideas about re-engineering our society and government down the throats of the voters. They placed obstacles in the path of such leaders in the form of representative government institutions that are supposed to go slow and invariably give voice to those who are more interested in holding government accountable than in growing it. Supporting this instinct isn’t cynical, nor is it a function of special interests. It is democracy in its purest and most American form.

What is most ironic about casting opponents of Obama’s agenda as seeking to thwart the will of the people is that such efforts are themselves only possible via grass roots action. The president’s message seems to be one that posits that participatory democracy is only proper if it produces results he likes, and not those—like the election of two successive Republican majorities in the House of Representatives—he doesn’t like.

What Barack Obama needs to come to terms with is that his opposition is not just a cabal of right-wing capitalists. Distrust of government is part of the DNA of American democracy. Those who are against Obama’s big government agenda constitute a significant portion of the American people and can look to the founders and the Constitution as their guide. The president can certainly seek to argue against their beliefs, but he should not do so by questioning their sincerity or dedication to the betterment of the nation any more than they should personally abuse him in this manner. If what he wants is a more involved citizenry, we applaud and concur in this appeal. But what the president must understand is that many of those who answer that call will do so in opposition to his program and can look to the original sources of American democratic principles for their inspiration.

Read Less

Eric Holder’s Reckless Assertion

During a speech to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Attorney General Eric Holder said that creating a “pathway to earned citizenship” was a “civil right.” Mr. Holder put it this way:

 

Creating a pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in this country is essential. The way we treat our friends and neighbors who are undocumented – by creating a mechanism for them to earn citizenship and move out of the shadows – transcends the issue of immigration status. This is a matter of civil and human rights. It is about who we are as a nation. And it goes to the core of our treasured American principle of equal opportunity.

As someone who believes in earned citizenship if it’s done in the context of other steps related to border security and encouraging more high-skilled workers coming to America, perhaps I have a bit of standing to say that what Holder said is nonsense. Offering earned citizenship to illegal aliens falls under the category of prudential arguments about immigration reform. There are serious policy arguments on both sides.

But Attorney General Holder’s claim is more than simply silly; it is also pernicious. It attempts to frame this debate not on the merits of granting a pathway to citizenship for those who have violated our laws; it’s an effort to frame it as a conflict between those who support (good people) and those who oppose (bad people) basic human rights. This is an effort, in other words, to demonize those with whom one disagrees, and therefore creates yet more polarization and anger and self-righteousness in a debate that probably needs less of it.

Read More

During a speech to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Attorney General Eric Holder said that creating a “pathway to earned citizenship” was a “civil right.” Mr. Holder put it this way:

 

Creating a pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in this country is essential. The way we treat our friends and neighbors who are undocumented – by creating a mechanism for them to earn citizenship and move out of the shadows – transcends the issue of immigration status. This is a matter of civil and human rights. It is about who we are as a nation. And it goes to the core of our treasured American principle of equal opportunity.

As someone who believes in earned citizenship if it’s done in the context of other steps related to border security and encouraging more high-skilled workers coming to America, perhaps I have a bit of standing to say that what Holder said is nonsense. Offering earned citizenship to illegal aliens falls under the category of prudential arguments about immigration reform. There are serious policy arguments on both sides.

But Attorney General Holder’s claim is more than simply silly; it is also pernicious. It attempts to frame this debate not on the merits of granting a pathway to citizenship for those who have violated our laws; it’s an effort to frame it as a conflict between those who support (good people) and those who oppose (bad people) basic human rights. This is an effort, in other words, to demonize those with whom one disagrees, and therefore creates yet more polarization and anger and self-righteousness in a debate that probably needs less of it.

What Holder said also reveals a fairly common mindset of those on the left, which is to characterize whatever position they embrace not simply as correct but as a basic civil right. In other words, as something fundamental and teleological, as a right that is ours based on our nature as human beings. The idea that a person who violates American sovereignty by illegally crossing our borders should be given a pathway to citizenship as a matter of civil and human rights is therefore indefensible, an invention. The attorney general is employing a very serious concept in a reckless way. And it empties the term of meaning, just as promiscuously accusing those who oppose the policies of President Obama of racism empties that charge of meaning. It really ought to stop, since human rights violations and racism really do exist.

Offering earned citizenship to those who are in America illegally may make sense economically, from a security standpoint, and even morally. Fine; if one believes that, then make the arguments. But words actually mean something — human rights and civil rights as concepts mean something — and so for Holder to make the claim that he did is quite unfortunate. But it is also, alas, quite predictable.

Read Less




Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.