Like you, I’ve been following the developments around the Arizona immigration legislation with some interest. Immigration certainly is an important and emotional topic, because of its connection to many other critical issues…schools, health care, crime, unemployment, etc. As usual, the topic is being presented in a debate format…one side sees numerous problems being solved with sweeping and dramatic, Arizona-style immigration legislation while the other side sees that immigration is unrelated to these other public problems…and that the enforcement of even current immigration laws is either unnecessary or unjust. We shouldn’t be surprised then that the current conversation isn’t particularly helpful in finding a policy everyone can live with. But…what if we’re really talking about the wrong issue? What if the critical issue we need to understand is really citizenship?
I don’t think we can make any informed decisions about immigration without first making an attempt to understand citizenship. Certainly there are plenty of people who seek admission into the United States without any desire to become U.S. citizens…they come primarily to work on a temporary basis. Some, of course, are here with legal sanctions while others are not. Clearly, the business community benefits from both categories of immigrant workers. I believe one of the most important questions in this immigration conversation isn’t about who’s here to work…it’s about who’s here to acquire permanent citizenship. But…I don’t think we as U.S. citizens are on the same page about what citizenship means in our country.
Citizenship in the ‘social contract’ interpretation includes a balance of both rights and responsibilities. Active citizenship means each person is expected to add value to society in order to improve the quality of life for all fellow citizens. This is very different, however, from what appears to be another widely-held interpretation of U.S. citizenship…many rights and privileges with very few social responsibilities. Under our ‘individual freedom’ understanding of citizenship, we receive protection from undue interference in individual choices while leaving benevolence toward others as an option. In the ‘sanctuary’ view of citizenship, disenfranchised people from around the world are welcomed with opportunities and rights, recognizing that their ability to accept responsibilities as productive members of society will grow through time. I believe it’s pretty clear that these three visions of what citizenships means are so different that they make really significant conversations about immigration very difficult.
I don’t believe we can discuss immigration without discussing citizenship as well. Who are the ‘we’ in ‘We the People’? And…if we discuss citizenship in relation to immigrants, we’ll end up talking about what we expect of each other as fellow citizens…if anything. Voting…paying taxes…volunteering in our communities…deliberating on public policy decisions? What are our expectations? And…do our expectations change through time? If we aren’t clear on our expectations of each other as fellow citizens, how can we justify our expectations of those who seek citizenship?
Once again, our own lack of clarity in our collective view of citizenship is playing itself out in angry and hurtful words…using immigration policy as a highly emotional, political tool. So far, I’m not hearing the kind of public discussion that might even start us along a path to any lasting solutions. I believe it’s possible to clarify our public expectations about citizenship and immigration…so we can create a policy that everyone can live with. It will have to carefully blend some of the elements in each of our existing interpretations of what citizenship means. It will put an end to the mixed messages we currently send. Let’s try to put first things first…starting with the end in mind on issues of employment, immigration and citizenship.