To most Americans, it may seem obvious that someone permanently residing in the United States should be able — and should desire — to become a U.S. citizen. Yet in the debate over legalizing some 11 million immigrants living in this country without authorization, many advocates of bringing these residents “out of the shadows” stop short of advocating an expedited path to citizenship.
Nor did President Obama’s 2012 decision to defer the deportation of so-called Dreamers — young people brought here illegally as young children by their parents — grant them citizenship, despite the fact that Obama characterized the Dreamers as “Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper.” Citizenship is also unlikely to be the primary objective of additional executive action by Obama to protect millions of other immigrants from deportation.
Perhaps more surprising is that many legal immigrants to the U.S. — lawful permanent residents, or “green-card” holders — choose to not apply for citizenship after the requisite waiting period. Reasons include the costs of applying, a reluctance to renounce their allegiance to their country of birth (although in practice, U.S. citizens are allowed to maintain dual citizenship) and a lack of interest in voting.
Some people think this state of affairs is just fine. They argue that the importance of citizenship is overemphasized, especially in an era of globalization. They note that one needn’t be a citizen to work in this country or to receive the protections of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees due process and equal protection of the laws to “persons” regardless of their nationality. And while it’s true that noncitizens are unable to vote in most elections, the reality is that many are happy to live here without voting; indeed, many citizens also choose not to exercise the franchise.
There are also people who oppose on moral grounds an expedited or “special” path to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally. It’s unfair, they say, to those who have “waited in line” to immigrate to the U.S. legally to afford any advantage to others who entered or remained illegally. (Actually, there are many “lines” of would-be immigrants from various countries, comprising an estimated 4 million people.) And then there are those who argue in favor of legalization without citizenship on pragmatic grounds, as the only way to win the support of Republicans in Congress for any form of what they long have derided as “amnesty.”
We disagree with these arguments. We don’t accept the notion that citizenship is a matter of indifference or political calculation, or a status that should be withheld from millions of people who have become an integral part of the fabric of the American economy and culture. That some U.S. citizens don’t value their right to elect their leaders is no reason to treat political participation as a marginal or optional activity. Citizens should feel obliged to vote, and noncitizens who make their lives in the United States should be encouraged to acquire citizenship so that they may join with their neighbors in the democratic experiment. And although the Constitution may promise equal justice to citizen and noncitizen alike, the existence of a large and enduring population of noncitizens undermines social cohesion and encourages prejudice and second-class treatment.
Citizenship is important not only because of the rights it confers but also because it comes with responsibilities. The premise of a representative democracy is that people are not only economic actors but also members of a self-governing commonwealth. That vision is impossible to achieve so long as large numbers of permanent residents do not seek naturalization. As of 2011, an estimated 3.4 million lawful permanent residents lived in California, 2.48 million of whom were eligible for naturalization. More needs to be done to encourage these green-card holders to become citizens.
As for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, it is not enough to protect them from deportation or make it possible for them to work legally. If these men, women and children are to remain here — and the idea that most of them will “self-deport” remains a fantasy — they should be fully integrated into the civic as well as the economic life of this country. That means voting, serving
on juries and being able to aspire to public office.
Last year, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that seeks to accomplish several objectives, including securing the border in the future and shifting the emphasis in legal immigration from family unification to a preference for applicants with valuable skills. But its most important — and most controversial — feature is a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
Even if the House someday comes to its senses and passes the bill, the path to legalization it proposes is a needlessly long and tortuous one. Immigrants who have lived in the country since Dec. 31, 2011, could apply for registered provisional immigrant status if they pass a criminal background check, pay assessed taxes and also pay application fees and a $1,000 penalty. After 10 years, a registered provisional immigrant could obtain permanent resident status — but only after the government processed other applications for green cards that predated the law. After three years as a permanent resident, the immigrant could apply for U.S. citizenship.
The Senate bill provides a separate path for some agricultural workers, who would be eligible for a “blue card” and would be able to obtain permanent resident status five years after enactment of the bill, and citizenship five years after that. (It also would allow temporary workers in the future to accumulate “points” that could be used to obtain permanent status and then citizenship.)
We would prefer a much more streamlined route to citizenship, but we recognize the political difficulties that confronted the authors of the Senate bill and that have prevented it from receiving a vote in the House. It is important, however, that the Senate bill recognized that mere legalization is not enough.
Citizenship is not, as Obama unfortunately implied, just a piece of paper. It is a source of empowerment and an investment in good government. Legalization is the beginning. Citizenship is the ultimate goal.
This is part of an ongoing conversation exploring the meaning of citizenship in America today. For more, join us at latimes.com/citizenship and #21stCenturyCitizen. We’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts, rebuttals and experiences with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion