What is an American?

For the past few weeks, we focused on how to understand citizenship. While Shklar makes a compelling claim that it is essentially about standing – one’s social place, Douglass seems to be challenging that notion by arguing that it is a matter of agency and empowerment. Who is right? Where and by what standard do we draw the line between social insiders and outsiders? What Shklar calls “the quest for inclusion” is still with us today, arguably in a much more complicated way than before: immigration.

I realized not too many have touched on the subject of immigration on this blog. This is quite surprising, since I believe the issue of immigration, or undocumented immigrants for that matter, is at the heart of our discussion on citizenship. Still, I was able to find a blog post by andycraft: http://polsci307.blog/2011/10/08/everyone-cant-have-it-the-depreciation-of-american-citizenship/.

Many people view that illegal immigrants are merely beneficiaries of the system and thus undeserving of citizenship. It is not my wish to challenge this claim. Even as a foreigner myself – and don’t worry because my status here is perfectly legal, I agree that the privileges of American citizenship should NOT extend to the free riders who willingly came to the US with such intent to enjoy all the benefits at the cost of legal American citizens.

However, I do want to open up a new conversation about immigration in this country: what do we do with children of illegal immigrants? What should be done with those who have nothing to do with the action of their parents? And moreover, what if they are incredibly talented and hardworking, capable of enriching this nation? I would like to introduce to you the story of Jose Antonio Vargas, a renowned journalist who was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize.

Notice how Jose identifies himself: “I’m an American, I just don’t have the right papers.” As someone who has pursued a successful career despite his condition, Jose tells us his definition of an American: a person who is independent, self-sufficient, hardworking, proud to be in America,  pays taxes and most importantly, contributes to society. I may be wrong but in some respects, Jose’s story and ideas remind me of Frederick Douglass, a self-made man himself, who once boldly declared “If the Negro knows enough to pay taxes to support the government, he knows enough to vote . . . If he knows enough to shoulder a musket and fight for the flag, fight for the government, he knows enough to vote” (What the Black Man Wants, Douglass). It seems both Jose and Douglass acknowledge the importance of civic virtue as the standard of American citizenship.

I’d like to shift your attention to what is actually being done in order to address this issue. The Congress is considering a bill called “the DREAM Act” (acronym for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), which would provide permanent residency to illegal aliens on certain conditions. The conditions include: 1) arrived in the US as minors, 2) lived here for at least five consecutive years since the arrival, 3) graduated from an American high school, or be admitted to an institution of higher education and 4) be of good moral character. If the above conditions are met, qualifying illegal immigrants will be granted the 6-year “conditional” period, during which they can either (a) graduate from a two-year community college or complete at least two years towards a four-year degree or (b) serve two years in the US military (The Dream Act, Wikipedia). If they have successfully fulfilled the requirements at the end of this period, they would be granted permanent residency that would eventually allow them to become U.S. citizens.

Opponents of the Dream Act are concerned that it would encourage and reward illegal immigration.

Obviously, the bill is clear manifestation of civic republicanism. Notwithstanding the status of talented children of illegal immigrants, it attaches importance to the American virtues they share, which in turn would promote the common good.  After all, it has been estimated that “between $1.4 trillion and $3.6 trillion in taxable income would be generated for the economy over a 40-year period based on potential DREAM Act beneficiaries successfully obtaining status through the legislation” (No Dreams Left Behind, North American Integration and Development Center).

So I’m going to ask you one last question: what is an American to you? And before you answer, make sure you hear what the President has to say about the issue.

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3 Responses to What is an American?

  1. haleynicoleepstine says:

    I think you definitely bring up an interesting issue that exists within the debate about illegal immigrants. We get so wrapped up talking about the immigrants that are mooching off of our society that we forget about the children who come with these adults. Unless the child is born in the United States, they are seen as illegal as their parent whom decided to illegally immigrate into this country. These children for the most part had no say in this decision- so why should they be punished. Many of these parents that immigrated, made this move to provide their children with a better opportunity.
    However I believe that this leads to a sticky situation- why should we deprive children of illegal immigrants the right to an education just because of decisions their parents made. Simultaneously why should American citizens have to pay for these childrens’ educations when their parents aren’t even paying taxes? I’m not sure if I can come to a final decision on this debate… Which is why I think you bring up an interesting point. One that I feel we must not overlook when discussing what we should do with illegal immigrants and what rights/ privileges they should or should not have.

  2. emmasag says:

    The issue of illegal immigration is one that definitely tests Shklar’s loose definition of citizenship, as it presents new challenges to the issue of what a citizen actually is. I have to say that I am also somewhat surprised this issue has not been addressed thus far on the blog given the challenges it presents to Shklar.
    In terms of the Dream act, it seems that house democrats in 2010, were attempting to extend citizenship to undocumented immigrants, offering some intriguing new requirements that looked to overcome the barriers to citizenship in this country that are partly responsible for the illegal immigration problem. Nonetheless, this civic republican attempt never really had a chance given its poor timing as well as the new voters it would have enfranchised (hurting republicans in future elections).
    The framework of the Dream Act should not be downplayed because of its failure. Rather, the new requirements it proposes to actually deal with the immigration problem should be embraced as a stepping stone towards actually enacting promising legislation with legs. The idea of further impeding undocumented citizens from working jobs undesirable to others and seeking higher education, goes against this country’s ‘ideals’, which just a century ago embraced European immigrants looking for the same opportunities. Instead, it seems necessary more than ever, for our country to look towards implementing sweeping reforms, so as to avoid wasting countless assets towards fighting a people who are simply looking for a better life.
    Further Dream Act information:

  3. czli2011 says:

    Reading this post reminded me of an interesting video I thought I would share with everyone:


    It’s a movement to drop the word “illegal” in illegal immigrants and instead replace it with “undocumented”. Here’s the video description:

    “Calling people ‘illegals’ feeds a hate machine, by exploiting racial fears and economic anxiety. The i-word, along with other words tainted by hate, provides an easy scapegoat for complex issues and OKs violence against those labeled with it. Don’t feed the hate machine. Drop the i-word. Sign the pledge at http://droptheiword.com.”

    Thought it would help move debate along. What do you think?

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