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Few people of any political persuasion deny the United States has an “immigration problem.” By this, they recognize that perhaps 2 million individuals enter the United States illegally each year and perhaps 10-12 million “undocumented” (the old phrases were “illegals” or “illegal aliens”) individuals already reside in the States.

The highly vitriolic debate gets started when anyone suggests what should be done about our “immigration problem.” Somehow, what one might think would be a fairly straightforward proposition—define American citizenship, put in place a process by which legal immigrants may become citizens, and police borders to assure the law is observed and American security is preserved—is not straightforward at all. In fact, it’s a political quagmire. Meanwhile, more individuals enter America illegally, more Americans are pressed into supporting undocumented individuals’ social and healthcare needs, and more bile taints political discourse whenever “immigrant” is mentioned.

Now, in frustration, some politicians are suggesting so-called “birth tourism” be stopped by changing the longstanding definition of citizenship stated in the Fourteenth Amendment: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside.”

These pols claim pregnant women enter the States illegally, then birth their children on American soil so the children will automatically become U.S. citizens, thus becoming so-called “anchor babies” making it possible for Mom to stay. The pols who disagree with this “birthright citizenship” want to change the law so children of illegals will not qualify automatically for U.S. citizenship.

All this is a rather said state of affairs getting to the heart of the fact that Americans no longer agree on what an American is. Some people, responding with compassion or other motives to the millions of illegal immigrants already here, or even those yet to come, seem to want to blithely throw the concept away as if it has no value. What of citizenship? Why does it matter? We’re all one and one for all? Anyone may come, the government will pick up the tab, and somehow it will all work out in the end.

It’s a wonderful utopian vision however misguided and ungrounded in reality. Ultimately, “the government” is us. We pick up the tab, and truth be told, a system built on the backs of a few to pay for the many simply doesn’t work.

In terms of national interest, defining American citizenship allows it to become a boon and blessing to all; it makes sense. Other countries define what it means to be a citizen. Why can’t America do this without being accused of bigotry, racism, or worse?

On the other hand, the anti-birthright citizenship movement is a kneejerk reaction that undermines some of the most precious principles in the American story. We are a nation of immigrants. Nearly all Americans come from somewhere else. It’s part of the genius of America’s free and open society, a land of opportunity, a land where one worships, works, and pursues happiness freely. Progress and plenty must be earned, but they are open to all. Lawyering away a baby’s citizenship because his or her mother is from another country flies in the face of what it means to be an American, not to mention the fact such a law would create an enforcement nightmare.

The open-the-floodgates perspective on immigration is unwise and in the end unhelpful to both Americans and undocumented individuals. The anti-birthright-citizenship perspective on immigration is equally unwise and in the end unhelpful. Neither approach is viable long-term or in the best interests of the nation.

Yet immigration policy and practice needs to be reformed, clearly. And reform isn’t rocket science. As I’ve said before, it can be done. What we need is common sense proposals led by articulate political leaders of integrity. We need immigration law that defines and defends American citizenship with appropriate patriotism. We need immigration law that respects the worth of American citizenship even as it offers this special privilege via legal process to individuals who care to work to attain it.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2011

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