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.
Obama’s executive action challenges American citizens to see ourselves in people who do not have valid immigration documents. If we are not able to do this, if we demonize others and threaten them, it diminishes our citizenship. So when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) warns that Americans may react to Obama’s executive actions on immigration with “instances of anarchy” and “violence,” we should take seriously the senator’s concerns, but also worry about the anemic vision of citizenship that his, and similar positions, promote.
The president cited a biblical passage — Exodus 22:21 — to confirm our obligations to so-called strangers among us. There is indeed a robust scriptural tradition about protecting immigrants, even that we should treat strangers as citizens. But this tradition is as much about the “we” who, in terms of Scripture, are God’s subjects. In biblical terms, we become God’s people when we treat strangers justly. Obama drew an American parallel: The crisis of millions of people who “live in the shadows,” as Obama repeatedly put it, is about “who we are as a country, and who we want to be for future generations.”
A citizen is an individual person, but citizenship is, at the same time, deeply relational. I am only a citizen in relation to others. The obligations of citizenship are duties I have to other people who live in my neighborhood, city, and country. Citizenship requires that we see ourselves in our neighbors, no matter who they are.
Rule of law was a central theme in Obama’s remarks. To be sure, accountability is an important moral category and integral to citizenship. When Obama talked about expanding security on southern border with more agents and technology, we can turn our attention to the more than 5,000 people who have died crossing the border since escalating militarization of the line began in 1994. As legal citizens, we are accountable to laws that are upheld in our name, laws that continue to result in deaths, even as unauthorized border crossings decline.
Obama’s immigration plan addresses all people who live in the United States. His executive actions will enable many of our neighbors, coworkers, and classmates who do not have papers to engage more meaningfully in our national community, but they also have the potential to deepen what it means, for all of us who are citizens, to be American.
Sarah Azaransky is an Assistant Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, where she teaches courses on race, sexual ethics, and immigration. She is the author of The Dream is Freedom: Pauli Murray and American Democratic Faith, editor of Religion and Politics in America’s Borderlands, and is currently working on a book about the international roots of the Civil Rights movement.
Image: Boston immigration rally, Jorge Salcedo / Shutterstock.com