Tuesday, April 7, 2015

US Citizenship: Membership Has Its Privileges

If you’re old enough, you remember the slogan, heavily promoted, for the American Express Card.  The long running campaign suggested that more was gotten by having the American Express Card than just a means of conducting cashless transactions. Even today, the campaign, officially retired in 1996 after a nine-year run, echoes in the company’s continued promotion of a broad array of services that constitute the “privileges” of being an American Express cardholder.

As citizens of the United States, we have a sense that we are “privileged.” Certainly, comparing the standard of living here with that in many other nations confirms that the average American is, in fact, very privileged. Still, many of us have friends, acquaintances, work associates, even relatives, who share in that higher standard of living, but who are not US citizens.

So, here is a question to consider:  if the United States decided to conduct a campaign to add additional citizens – not merely guests, permanent resident aliens, or undocumented persons – and it adopted as an adman’s pitch, “Citizenship has its privileges,” what would those privileges be?

Obviously, privileges of citizenship cannot simply be the same benefits that flow to anyone present within the territorial boundaries of the country. If it were, why bother to provide a system of naturalization that adds 700,000 naturalized citizens to our body politic each year? In the law, you are a citizen, or you are an alien. We work alongside, play alongside, recreate, shop and walk alongside aliens everyday. Yet, in the main, nearly one million aliens amongst us each year seek and get the “golden ticket” of citizenship. Also of note, a comparatively tiny number of citizens are rushing for the exit and renouncing our primal claims of citizenship.

So, then, what are the privileges of citizenship?

As it turns out, the answer depends on who provides it.

For example, the federal government lists these “benefits” of citizenship: bringing family members to the United States; the right to vote; the right to protection by the government when abroad, including when victimized by crime or endangered by disasters or emergencies; access to a larger pool of employment opportunities, as many federal jobs are conditioned on citizenship; the right to participate in a federal jury; and, a larger pool of federal student aid.

More specifically, if you ask the folks whose business it is to process applications for citizenship, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, they supplement the above list with these additional “rights:” freedom of expression; freedom of worship; the right to a prompt, fair trial; the right to run for elective office; and, freedom to pursue “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Attorneys in private practice note additional benefits of citizenship. If a naturalized citizen commits a crime and a permanent resident alien commits the same crime, unless the crime was one of fraud in applying for citizenship (think John Demjanjuk), the naturalized citizen cannot be deported to her home country. Her twin sister, the permanent resident alien, can be deported. Also, as lawyers will explain, the federal tax code exempts certain property transfers from a deceased spouse to a surviving one, but only if the spouse is a citizen.

Still, the foregoing benefits and privileges cannot fully answer the question.

Reading immigrants’ stories helps.

Opportunity. Freedom. A future with a future in it. Expressing appreciation for the sacrifices made by this Nation, particularly its military sons and daughters.

We tend to take these things for granted. The vast majority of Americans are not in reduced poverty, living, literally, moment by moment in fear of harms, whether from criminals, tyrants, famine, or otherwise. Nor have we lived all our lives – from cradle to grave – in a society that requires or prizes severe regimentation. We choose where we live. We choose what we study. We choose whether to pursue professions or to undertake trades. We even choose burial or cremation at the end of our days.

Some immigrants, particularly coming from lands of limited opportunity, note that America has been one place where everyone has the opportunity to be great, to stand apart from the crowd, to distinguish ourselves.

Just as Soviet-style regimentation is unfamiliar here in the US, many others come to America fleeing oppressions of one kind or another. For some, that oppression affects the most natural of human instincts: to propagate the species. The 1993 grounding of the Chinese merchant ship Golden Venture, followed thereafter by numerous asylum applications by Chinese nationals, brought new light to the brutality of China’s coercive one-child policy, enforced with nonconsensual abortions and sterilizations. Other repressive regimes have driving immigrants to America’s shores, including Myanmar, Communist Vietnam and Cuba.

I suppose that one privilege – to me – stands above all the others that might be named. That one is the power to cast a vote, and by that vote to help shape the future in which we will live, in which our children will live, and in which new Americans will be made welcome.

The next quadrennial presidential election season approaches. Already two would be nominees have announced their pursuit of the Republican nomination. As the race comes into full swing, the clamor and din, the clashing of issues and personalities, will not fade, but rise to its expected Kabuki crescendo. Strong opinions sharply stated will, at least for a time, offer voters, seasoned ones and virginal voters, seemingly irreconcilable conflicts among candidates and parties.

Now is as good a time as any to place firmly in our minds the sage and humble supplication of Abraham Lincoln, offered in his First Inaugural Address. Recall that Lincoln’s election, for those that feared an indomitable federal government would overwhelm that natural right framed in the Declaration, to throw off a government repressive of liberty, was a clarion. Such was the reaction that Lincoln, essentially, snuck into the Nation’s Capitol. While he avoided an assassin’s bullet that day, the danger of violent dissent never dissipated. Still, in speaking to the yet united States, he appealed to calm, to reason, to Christian sentiment, in voice no less needed now as then:

As the election approaches, I suspect some will find offense in my commentaries about various candidates and various issues. I hope you will find in me this same aspiration and invitation as offered by Lincoln:  “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”