Sunday, May 9, 2010


In the debate over immigration, just as in the debate over the "war on terror" we hear citizenship being touted as the deciding factor in how people are treated. Citizens get one level of treatment, non-citizens get treated at another, lower level. On the surface it appears logical...there is something special about citizenship. And that is correct. However, as with most generalizations and superficial statements, if you scratch below the surface you may be surprised at what you find.

Citizenship is conferred in this country in two ways. Many people immigrate to the US,spend time here learning the language,culture and law, and after a period of time are able to apply for naturalization. By way of a citizenship test, background checks, and swearing an oath, they can become naturalized citizens, which gives them all the privileges of citizenship. The only restriction is they cannot be President.

Most people become citizens the other way, by birth. They don't have to pass any test, swear any oath, learn anything (except for advancement in school and work).And they can even become President, if they so desire. They become citizens based on the fortunate situation of their parents (or at least their mother residing here when they were born. It makes no difference how long their ancestry goes back, just that they were born in the US. That is the way I became a citizen.

The privileges of citizenship that are outlined in the Constitution are sparse. Voting is one, regardless of race, sex, or age(18 or above). Another is serving in government. You have to be a citizen to become a Representative, Senator,or President. And that is about it. There are other references to citizen, but these are the big issues.

When you look at rights delineated in the Constitution you find the words "people" or "persons". When talking about freedom of speech,religion, press, trial by jury, protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, etc, the prohibition against infringement by law enforcement is to individuals, not just citizens. The right of habeus corpus, contained in the body of the Constitution (before amendments) is for all, not just citizens. So there is no difference in the area of rights between citizens and non-citizens.

Why is this so? Partly it is because those rights are seen as part of the "certain unalienable rights" that Jefferson declares are "all men...are endowed by their Creator" with. Partly it is because of the moral foundation of those rights - they are right and fair and just, not privileges for the few or "acceptable". But aside from the moral and philosophical, there is a legal reason. The rights are listed as a limitation on power, to protect people, and it is operable for all who reside in this country,not just citizens. It is a limit we have set on our government. And it is a reminder that rights are a right of being human, and as Jefferson also declared governments are set up to secure (protect) those rights, not grant them.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post here! If not for you, I never would have realized that distinction outlined in the Constitution...thank you!