The real meaning of American citizenship

As thousands of migrants stream toward our southern border, it is more apparent now than ever that America’s immigration system is broken. The best way to stop the slow-motion catastrophe we see coming up through Mexico is to immediately reform our immigration laws and then firmly and fairly enforce them. To do that the right way, we first need to rediscover and re-emphasize the meaning of American citizenship.

I recently attended a naturalization ceremony at Washington’s Headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey. Nothing reminds a natural-born American how privileged he is to have been born here than attending such an event.

At the ceremony, 24 people from 15 countries around the world participated. They came from places ranging from China to Israel, Ghana to Honduras. The opportunities and hope that America offered to each were unique, but they all had worked hard to pass their citizenship test and put thoughtful consideration into the decision to become an American. And they all had done so through an entirely legal, painstaking process into which they poured tremendous time and effort with a love of our country and a respect for the rule of law.

At the climax of the event, each new citizen raised his or her right hand and took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. The Oath acknowledges and accepts the obligations of citizenship, while also granting the new Americans a range of new rights. Those obligations include coming to the nation’s defense in time of war, performing civilian acts of national importance when necessary, and upholding and defending the Constitution and the laws of our nation. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the obligations of citizenship is that they are not owed to some king or dictator, but to each other and now all of us – to “We the People.”

The look of joy and elation on the faces of the newly minted Americans I met last month was a priceless reminder of so much that unites us as a nation, and what is truly good and decent about it. The ceremony, and the hundreds like them that occur all around the country each year, remind us that American citizenship is indeed unique. It does not rely exclusively on one’s ancestry or where one was born. Anyone can be an American citizen if he or she pursues citizenship in the right way. That reality has been one of our nation’s great strengths over the course of our history, and the making of new American citizens is something to celebrate everywhere, every time.

But when immigration laws are flouted, when politicians confer the privileges of citizenship on some without demanding corresponding obligations, and when borders are erased, American citizenship is devalued. Sanctuary cities, public financial aid for non-citizen college students, and drivers licenses for illegal immigrants are all examples of policies that grant the blessings of citizenship to those who do not possess it. “Citizenship lite” attracts millions to America from across the globe – like the migrant caravan we see in motion today – who seek the peace and prosperity only America offers, but who do so in unlawful ways.

Devaluing citizenship also undermines the confidence of Americans citizens in their government’s ability to enforce its laws, as well as the government’s commitment to the people it is supposed to serve. And that is the heart of the immigration issue; the debate over immigration boils down to fairness. American citizens who obey the law and ask only a fair shake from their government, quickly become alienated when they see public benefits handed out to those who don’t do the same thing. People especially don’t appreciate it when politicians – elected officials asked to create laws – instead bend, break, or defy the laws of the country.

As the stream of migrants flows northward toward our border, and changes to our immigration laws are inevitably debated, elected officials would be wise to always keep at the center of the debate the critical importance and meaning of American citizenship. Any laws passed in response to the crisis that debases the concept of citizenship will be to our peril, and laws that strengthen our sense of citizenship will be passed to our great benefit for generations of Americans to come.