I am a newly minted American. Four years ago I passed the naturalization test and took the oath of allegiance to the United States. But I had been living as a citizen before I took the oath. Those who do not have the legal status of citizen often act as citizens. They attend PTA meetings, pay taxes, and engage in spirited public discussions about the common good. Citizenship is not only a legal status, but also a moral category and a set of practices.
President Obama recognizes this. Last night’s address described executive actions that will protect up to five million people from deportation and provide them with permits to work legally. People without valid immigration documents will be eligible to stay in the country temporarily if they have lived in the United States for more than 5 years, if they have children who are American citizens or legal residents, and if they register and pass criminal background checks.
Obama is not offering people citizenship, but his address reflected on the meaning of community belonging. “These people” often act like citizens, he seemed to be saying, because they “came to work, and study, and serve in our military, and above all, contribute to America's success.” To those of us who are citizens legally, Obama also had a message: Become better Americans.