Let's Test Everyone for Citizenship

08/04/2010 12:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Eric Liu Co-Author, 'The Gardens of Democracy'

In this silly season, anti-immigrant right-wingers are calling for an end to birthright citizenship. And leading Senate Republicans are taking them seriously.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution says that all persons born in the United States are citizens of the United States. The nativism behind the push to repeal or amend the Fourteenth is ugly and obvious. So are the tactical reasons why the likes of Mitch McConnell, Jeff Sessions, and John McCain have brought this idea from the fringe into the mainstream. But before we get too exercised, we should ask whether these guys might be on to something.

Maybe it shouldn't be so easy to become a citizen.

After all, when I look at some of the selfish, fear-mongering, divisive anti-immigrant activists seeking to end birthright citizenship, I see living proof that being born here doesn't necessarily make you a good citizen. And I know many non-citizens in America who, in the way they live and work and serve community and country, are many times better Americans than some of the entitled non-contributors who scream about "anchor babies" subverting our way of life.

So here's a proposal, offered only partly in jest: no resident of the United States, whether born here or abroad, should get to be a citizen until age 18, at which time each such resident has to take a test. The test should include the stuff that naturalizing immigrants today need to know - the three branches, the national anthem, who chopped down the cherry tree - but it should also ask what you've done to contribute to the common wealth, through civility and stewardship and service to others. If you pass, you get to be a citizen - for, say, ten years. At which time you take the test again to renew your citizenship for another decade.

If you want to spend a few years as an antisocial, solipsistic hoarder, without regard for the health of neighbor or nation, that's your choice. If you care more about the next judge on American Idol than the next justice of the Supreme Court, that's your prerogative. But you just might end up, in your apathy or ignorance, disqualified for citizenship. You might end up an illegal alien.

Of course, somebody would have to decide who exactly is qualified to be a citizen. Oh, I know: let's put that judgment in the hands of those politicians whose re-election date is nearest on the calendar. In fact, let's repeal one of the great amendments to the Constitution to make it so.

A crazy, unworkable, un-American proposal? Perhaps. Like some others floating out there now. But "true citizenship" is a sword that cuts both ways. And it's high time we put the new nativists to the test of their own words.

Republicans say they want citizenship to truly mean something. Let's be equal-opportunity about it and test everyone, including those very Republicans and others whose forbears came here generations ago. Let's dispense with the accident of birth as the measure of membership and see who really earns it. Look around. Fewer are worthy than bandy about the credential. And I can tell you this: most of the unworthy will not be border-crossers from Mexico.

Eric Liu, a former speechwriter and senior policy adviser to President Clinton, is the son of immigrants. He is co-author, with Nick Hanauer, of The True Patriot.