How Long is Long Enough?

So, John Lamb over at Hispanic Nashville Notbebook sent me an email with this question:

A question for you – would you support the following amendment to the U.S. Constitution? The current text says “All persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States and of the State in which they reside.” Would you be willing to add, “All persons with [X] years of physical presence in the United States are legal residents of the United States and of the State in which they reside.” If so, what number would you put in the [X]?

Here’s the background he gave me on it.

First – the U.S. government, from the time of George Washington to around the time of Abraham Lincoln, let pretty much everyone who ever stepped foot in the United States have legal residency immediately and apply for citizenship after only about 3 years. They never imagined an immigration system that would increasingly narrow the definition of “American” over time to systematically exclude people with years and years of life lived in the U.S.
Second – Martin Luther King, Jr., in Letter from Birmingham Jail, said, “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” I’ve heard it said a different way, as well: “If you’re here, you’re us.” Or put yet another way, the more time you spend in the U.S., the more American you become.
I, myself, am not really persuaded by the founding fathers argument.  The founders couldn’t imagine a lot of things we have now, like airplanes or computers or corporate personhood, and they clearly didn’t design the Constitution to be an inflexible, immutable document.  They built into the fabric of our society the ability to change our society, which makes what they intended other than that less and less meaningful.  For better and for worse.
I am more compelled by the words of King.  How can anyone who lives here among us not be us?
I don’t think a Constitutional amendment like the one John’s proposing has a snowball in hell’s chance of passing, but…
But, if we’re just dreaming, I would say “Open the borders.”  Come on in.  No “legal” immigrants, no “illegal” immigrants, just folks who are here.  And I would put the number of years you had to be here to start the citizenship process at 3, but in order to be a citizen, you must either be enrolled in school (if you are above 5 and under 18) or steadily employed if you are over 18.  If, after you’ve been here three years, if you don’t want to become a citizen, you must return to your home country for a year before returning here for another three years, if you like.
What do y’all think?

19 thoughts on “How Long is Long Enough?

  1. So, B, if a family comes over and brings their old grandmother with them, she couldn’t become a citizen because she has no job? What about an immigrant who is able to support a spouse to be a full-time stay-at-home parent — can’t the spouse become a citizen?

    Me, I’m all in favor of open immigration and an eased path to citizenship. And I like a three to five year wait before starting the citizenship process. But while I agree with you that there need to be some standards for attaining citizenship, I’m not sure you have the right ones.

  2. How can anyone who lives here among us not be us?

    idunno. ask a libertarian, a neoconservative, and a progressive and see if they come to any consensus on the matter.

    (i live here, and i’ll never be entirely “you”. i’m closer to american than to my native nationality, now, but i’ll never go that last bit of the way, nor do i really want to. i’ve no idea what Dr. King was talking about — a fundamental inability to truly understand U.S. racial politics is one of the things that marks me as “not you” and likely always will; i think you do have to be born and raised here to navigate those waters.)

  3. That sounds like a good dream to me, though the ‘go back for a year if you don’t want to be a citizen’ bit sounds like a recipe for a lot of paperwork problems.

    I think I’d just tax extended non-citizen stays after that point. You get 3 – 5 years to live and work here as an adult non-citizen, then if you don’t want to be a citizen, you pay a small percentage of your income each year you stay in the country. Cuts down on the overall paperwork, cuts down on the need for extra policing (because it’s just a line on your taxes like everything else; there’s no ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’ nonsense, just …. taxes), and if properly calculated both earns revenue and avoids placing an undue burden on productive adult non-citizens.

  4. So, B, if a family comes over and brings their old grandmother with them, she couldn’t become a citizen because she has no job? What about an immigrant who is able to support a spouse to be a full-time stay-at-home parent — can’t the spouse become a citizen?

    Ooh, right. I hadn’t thought about that. Those are good points. I do think that the school requirement should stay, but the job one would be problematic. I think instead I’d offer incentives for desirable traits; if you have a job, no criminal history, and/or [insert list of optional desirable traits; degree in important field, work in industries/professions, etc.], then you can start the citizenship process earlier, or pay a smaller percentage in non-citizen taxes. Everyone can get to the same place with relatively little hassle, but if you’ve got things we want/need, then you might get a little bonus here and there.

  5. taxing people for the privilege of not becoming citizens of the country, as opposed to valuing citizenship enough to ask people to put in some extra effort to gain it? what is this, the U.S. Citizens’ passports and other garbage removal service fee?

    i’m sorry, i seem to have walked through a looking glass somewhere. i’ll try to find my way back.

  6. “If, after you’ve been here three years, if you don’t want to become a citizen, you must return to your home country for a year before returning here for another three years, if you like.”

    1) You just codified, “America – Love It or Leave It”!

    2) By the way, after three years, you will have “illegal” and “legal” immigrants again if any of the people who don’t apply for citizenship after three years decide to stay anyways. Or would you just increase their tax rate instead of making them “illegal,” as one of the comments suggests?

    3) I’m reminded of Tennessean columnist Saritha Prabhu’s comment, “In this nation of many disposable things, your identity, as many immigrants find, isn’t readily disposable. And you should probably question the loyalty of someone who switches allegiance instantly.”
    http://www.hispanicnashville.com/2006/12/even-when-leaving-home-you-keep-it.html

  7. Just curious – would you verify employment? What if one immigrant said to another immigrant, I’ll hire you for $1/year to watch my back. I doubt you would accept that. Wouldn’t you need an income requirement?

    Tying this to a recent post of yours, would trying to support a family on a 1999 salary be enough to qualify for citizenship? Why should it be enough?

    P.S. Of course I’m glad to see I’m not the only one compelled by the words of King applied to this context.

  8. Nomen, we aren’t all a unitary us here, anyway. And I do think that closeness (in time or in number of generations) to the original act of immigration is a big divider among us. Here in TN, where most people are very, very far from that act, the inability to understand immigration as a process is pronounced, for example. But I’ve lived in places where calling oneself an unhyphenated American could not be understood, even among those who were born here and speak no language other than English.

  9. All right. Y’all have convinced me that having a job as a requirement is stupid. But I would like to see some kind of shit or get off the pot measure. You can come here and be here and contribute, but…

    Or, I don’t know, fuck it. I didn’t have to do anything to become a resident of Tennessee except get here and change my address. Would it really be the end of the world if citizenship were just available to anyone who could move here?

    I mean, eventually most states did away with blood testing for marriage licenses because the blood test was racist in its conception and used mostly to keep undesirables (read: blacks) from being able to marry.

    It’s clear our immigration standards are about assuring the “right” mix of people are here–which is about insuring that the racial “mix” is right. Fuck that.

    I’m all for trying something radical that respects the fact that people who come here are people who deserve to be treated as such.

  10. I didn’t have to do anything to become a resident of Tennessee except get here and change my address. Would it really be the end of the world if citizenship were just available to anyone who could move here?

    I’d love it if everyone who came here (as anything other than a tourist) was automatically a legal resident who was presumed to be pursuing citizenship. Which would come, upon application, with time and with not being convicted of any major crime. Just like the good old days before they slammed the doors alllllllllmost shut as it is now.

  11. Would it really be the end of the world if citizenship were just available to anyone who could move here?

    That was my point about the Founding Fathers. It wasn’t the end of the world. We as a country did pretty well when citizenship was available to anyone who could move here.

    I guess you would accept my proposal but eliminate the words “[X] years of”

    Your system is the same as Washington’s and Lincoln’s – no “legal” or “illegal” immigrants.

    In my less generous proposal, there are still “legal” and “illegal” immigrants, but not among the people who have lived in the U.S. for a time greater than X.

  12. let pretty much everyone who ever stepped foot in the United States have legal residency immediately and apply for citizenship after only about 3 years.

    As long as they were white males. And even then, some white males (the Irish) still had to fight an uphill battle–citizens or no.

    It irks me when people act as though the founding fathers (the same men who brought you the 3/5ths Compromise and no suffrage for women) had something about citizen governance nailed. It still bugs me that they weren’t clearer about the right to bear arms.

  13. Total twaddle.

    I know a little bit about being an immigrant and living among folks, but not being of them. I’ve lived in the UK as a legal immigrant – but not a citizen for over 11 years. I’ve been eligible for citizenship for about 7 years, but have never pursued it.

    I pay taxes, I contribute, I volunteer, I have a British spouse, a house, a life and a job and now a British son, too.

    Should I be forced to take 1 year breaks from my life (and the tremendous expense and bother that would entail) because I haven’t become a citizen? Should we move to the US, should my husband move away from us on a four year cycle?

    There are many ways to contribute without being naturalized. And many reasons not to take the next step in the complex and emotional matter of citizenship.

  14. I’m not American, but I’ve spent enough time trying to live in countries that I don’t have citizenship in that I have some experience of these problems.

    I love the idea of open borders. I too don’t think the job requirement is fair. As long as social security doesn’t really pay enough to live on and support a family, people generally do want to work, whether they are citizens or not. I don’t think you need extra incentive for non-citizens. That just goes back to the “immigrants are lazy” trope.

    As for the requirement to start becoming a citizen after a certain length of time in the country, that only works if the country of origin allows dual citizenship, which many do not. I don’t think anyone should have to give up rights to reside in the country of their birth in return for rights in their country of residence.

    Ideally I think we need a situation where people can live indefinitely in a country they have ties to, whether that be through family, work, language, birth or similar. They should have the chance to create those ties, e.g. by spending time temporarily in a country for schooling, or for short-term work. And then they should be allowed to stay. Once there, they need to have the same access to health-care as citizens, and if they pay tax, they need to be allowed to vote. (This last one is my personal grievance as a New Zealander living in Australia. Despite being young, healthy, having a PhD, a husband with a good job here, and plenty of money in the bank, I don’t score highly enough in the Australian “points system” to apply for citizenship now or ever, so the chances are I’ll never be able to affect the political processes here.)

    Finally, I think there is an inherent problem in assigning any sort of points to desirable qualities as was suggested higher up (see my personal situation). Whoever comes up with the points system, no matter how intricate it is, will not cover every possibility, and people will fall through the cracks.

    I think a great immigration program would be that anyone can immigrate to a new country if you can find a citizen of that country who is more of a deadbeat than the potential immigrant, and kick them out to make room for the new person. That way the country’s pool of skilled/hard-working people is always improving, and everyone’s happy.

    But strangely enough, citizens don’t want to vote for a scheme like that.

  15. “I think a great immigration program would be that anyone can immigrate to a new country if you can find a citizen of that country who is more of a deadbeat than the potential immigrant, and kick them out to make room for the new person.”

    I think you just solved welfare reform.

  16. that only works if the country of origin allows dual citizenship, which many do not.

    some countries may not allow it, but all they really can do is revoke your first citizenship when you take on your second one. most reasonable countries these days recognize that, and don’t really bother too much about dual citizens.

    a great immigration program would be that anyone can immigrate to a new country if you can find a citizen of that country who is more of a deadbeat than the potential immigrant, and kick them out to make room

    admirably simple, but unfortunately, you’d have to find a way to quantify deadbeat-ness. otherwise i’d be all for it, myself.

  17. It still bugs me that they weren’t clearer about the right to bear arms.

    Kat Coble, there is a reason the Founders weren’t clearer with the language of the 2nd Amendment. Like many other provisions in the Constitution, they were accommodating the elephant in the room without mentioning that elephant.

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