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There are two ways of thinking about citizenship in the United States. One school of thought takes its motto from Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” recorded inside the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Essentially, it maintains that the United States, as part of its democratic obligations, should embrace all those who desire entry into the nation, openly accepting immigrants who seek out its advantages. But the second view of American citizenship demands something greater from immigrants seeking access to the United States. It calls on them not only to exhibit a desire to participate in the benefits of American life but also to assimilate into the conditions of this life.
Under this second view, America should still be the land sought out by refugees, by those searching for economic and political opportunities, and by those who admire the nation’s ideals. But just as the United States provides immigrants with benefits they desire, so, too, should these immigrants contribute to national life in America—by learning English, by acknowledging the values embodied in our Constitution, and by embracing the culture they have left their homeland to enjoy. Nowhere is the need for this second view of citizenship more evident than in the debate over illegal immigration, specifically as it applies to the education of the children of illegal immigrants.
In the 1982 case of Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court required states to provide for the public education of illegal immigrants living in the United States. The Court claimed that these children were entitled to the “equal protection of the laws” guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court’s argument is a compelling one because it appeals to what is best in the American tradition—its desire to extend constitutional values and apply our nation’s civic morality on a universal scale. Furthermore, it seems unfair on some fundamental level to penalize school-age children who were taken into this country illegally by their parents. Because these children had no control over their movements or migrations, they should not be punished through the denial of educational opportunities.
Unfortunately, the current state of illegal immigration in this country has placed us in a position where this reasoning no longer holds. In order to develop any long-term solution to the problem of illegal immigration, Americans need to stop incentivizing it. Right now, those incentives include free public education for those who have no legal right to be here, employment in a system that ignores citizenship status in the hiring process, and broader rights like immediate citizenship for any child born on U.S. territory. The way to prevent illegal immigrants from entering this country is to provide them with no reason to come—to send the message that those who enter this nation illegally are not entitled to the rights of its citizens.
This, of course, leaves the question of the children. Certainly, all children have a right to receive an adequate public education; however, not all children have a right to receive this education in the United States. While it is unfortunate that the children of illegal aliens should have to suffer for their parents’ actions, it is a necessary consequence of the crisis state of illegal immigration in this country. Too often, those who support measures like amnesty or the education of illegal aliens focus only on the rights of those entering the United States illegally, ignoring the consequences of their actions for citizens. When illegal immigrants are admitted to public schools, class sizes increase and enrolled citizens receive less attention than they deserve. The federal and state governments spend nearly $52 billion a year to provide for the education of the children of illegal aliens, and only about one-third of federal expenditures on undocumented immigrants are compensated by the taxes these immigrants pay. The rights of illegal immigrants and their children are undoubtedly important, but the rights of American citizens must be considered in the balance as well.
The children of illegal immigrants should not be left without options. For this reason, measures like the DREAM Act, which provides qualified students pursuing a college degree or serving in the military with an avenue to citizenship, are necessary if we are to make any long-term progress with regard to illegal immigration. More comprehensive enactments should provide paths to citizenship for younger children who were brought to the United States illegally, regardless of their college attendance or military service, but no one should be exempt from the citizenship process completely. In the meantime, America needs to adapt its policies to avoid creating the culture of entitlement that has led illegal immigrants to expect rights and benefits to which they have no legal claim. In bringing the two conceptions of citizenship together, the United States can create a culture of legal immigration that both broadens the nation’s melting pot and heightens its national unity. We need to adopt the motto of the first conception—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses”—and add an important qualifier: as long as you’re legal.
Peter M. Bozzo ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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