Talking recently to a friend who is a Canadian citizen living here on a permanent resident visa, I discovered that, after many years, she is finally applying to become a U.S. citizen.
Her reasons are partly practical — she wants to vote in elections, qualify for some benefits that are only open to citizens, and not have to worry about changes in the law that might someday make her unwelcome in her adopted country, where her children are citizens and she isn’t.
But she really appreciates America, as do her husband, a medical professional, and their kids.
Our nation should always be open to people who want to become citizens. We have always been a nation of immigrants, and if we stop being that, we stop being America.
America has always been an idea, a set of shared values, and not an ethic group, religion or unitary culture. If we shut our doors now, we will become less than we are and far less than we could be.
One can believe all that, however, and still think illegal immigration should be stopped in its tracks. The conversation about accepting the millions of people now here without papers or permission should begin only when our borders are firmly controlled and that condition is fulfilled.
That view seems to put me in a bit of a minority these days. Polls show a very slight plurality prioritizing the problem of dealing with people already here as opposed to sealing the border, although it is certainly possible to want to do both.
House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican that you really think would know better, was videoed recently giving a whiny impression of members of his own caucus who want to put off dealing with illegal immigration until after the next election.
Some people noted that Boehner should probably refrain from making fun of other people by pretending they are crying.
More importantly, if Republicans do gain control of the Senate, their ability to pass bills acceptable to the broad swath of the party — and presumably the nation — would be assured, and then Obama would be put in the position of vetoing them.
As things stand now, whatever passes the House will pass the Senate only with Democratic approval, and be sent on to a president who has shown all too often that when it comes to choosing between what a law says and what he wants to do, the law comes in a distant second.
It would be wise, in my view, for conservatives to compromise — but not collapse — on this issue. Once the border is secured, those here illegally can be allowed to stay, as long as they join the tax rolls at whatever level of compensation they are currently receiving.
On welfare? There’s a five-year limit for those who entered illegally. If you don’t have a job by then, or a private individual who will guarantee your support, your permission to stay is revoked.
But you can only become a citizen — and thus qualify to vote — by meeting exactly the same standards as those hundreds of thousands of people already in line for becoming legal immigrants, and the border-jumpers go at the end of the current line.
That should address the concerns of those who don’t want to reward law-breaking and those who want to show compassion of people who have begun to build lives here.
But we should understand — we must understand — that just offering a blanket amnesty to current residents without sealing the border and without some sort of qualifying standards for citizenship means that the current group will only grow and grow and grow.
As a related (and scary) aside, I asked my friend if she had to study for the citizenship test, and she said she was working hard.
The test she will have to take was easy to find online — it has 100 questions in three broad categories (U.S. government, history and civics). Prospective citizens are asked 10 of them chosen at random, with six right answers required to pass.
Easy, you think? I missed two, one on the number of constitutional amendments (27; I was off by a frightful five) and the other on what Benjamin Franklin did (my answer, “publish newspapers,” wasn’t on the approved list — and neither was “fly a kite in a lightning storm”).
What’s scary? Not that my friend will fail, she’ll do fine — but along the way, I found a video of a half-dozen random American citizens of various ages, sexes and races being asked 10 questions from the list.
Only one respondent got more than one right.
We might be doing this backwards. Maybe everyone here now should have to pass the test to be able to stay.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.