Citizenship: What's It Worth?

By Andrew Wainer 8-19-2010

Sen. Lindsey Graham's proposal to modify the 14th amendment (yes, the one that granted slaves citizenship after the Civil War) is perhaps the clearest signal yet of the depth of anger over immigration.

The change to the amendment isn't going to happen -- and don't expect to hear much about it after the November election -- but the mere fact that it's being discussed, even as a purely political tactic, speaks volumes about the current feeling toward immigrants among wide swaths of the American public (recent polling gives the proposal the support of almost half of all Americans.)

Behind the proposal and anti-immigration feeling in general is the view that legalizing immigrants devalues U.S. citizenship. If you can just cross the border and become a citizen (after paying a fine, waiting for years, undergoing a background check, learning English, and working jobs that no one else wants), what's the value of being an American?

But as anti-immigrant voices protest that amnesty debases citizenship, they haven't defined what citizenship means or what it's worth. In this respect immigration can be instructive, because immigrants -- much more than most Americans -- know intimately the value of living legally in the United States.

In 2007, 27 percent of Americans carried U.S. passports. Historically, most Americans choose not to use their U.S. citizenship -- which opens doors around the world -- to travel internationally. But immigrants are dying to get into the United States -- something they wouldn't be obliged to do if there was a more rational system for matching immigrant labor with available U.S. jobs.

From 1998 to 2009, 4,375 immigrants -- men, women, and children -- died trying to cross the border. In 2009, the number of deaths increased even as overall immigration decreased thanks to increased border security. The number of deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border during this decade surpassed -- by a factor of 10 -- that of the Berlin Wall during its 28-year history. The escape from poverty has proved more deadly than the escape from communism.

Voting is another right of citizenship, but historically U.S. citizens haven't been keen on exercising it. In 2008, in what was the presidential campaign of a generation, 64 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, the highest turnout in decades. If an epic presidential election draws only six of 10 voters, what does that say about the value of voting to most Americans?

"Illegal" immigrants can't participate in the U.S. political process, but in the primary area of American public life which they are allowed to engage -- labor -- no other group has higher rates of male employment. Almost all (94 percent) of "illegal" immigrant working-age men are in the labor force, surpassing legal immigrants (85 percent) and U.S.-born men (83 percent.) And this participation is in a much smaller range of jobs than are open to the U.S.-born and that most U.S.-born workers find unattractive.

Another traditional duty of citizenship is serving in the armed forces. But with a professional warrior class fighting in two wars, less than 1 percent of Americans is on active duty. Immigrants, on the other hand, have always been a major part of America's fighting force. The foreign-born comprised half of all recruits by the 1840s, and during the Civil War 20 percent of Union Army soldiers were foreign-born -- including many Irish and Germans who would be considered "illegal" immigrants in today's terms.

The contemporary military doesn't knowingly allow "illegal" immigrants to join; nevertheless in 2008 there were more than 65,000 foreign-born (legal) immigrants serving -- and dying -- in the military, about 5 percent of all service members. Since September 2001, 111 immigrants have been granted retroactive citizenship after being killed in action.

And while anti-immigration activists spin fantasies of migrants timing their border-crossings to have children in the United States -- and subsequently suck up as much welfare money as they can -- research shows that immigrants have paid $7 billion in taxes to the Social Security system, money that they will never see and which Uncle Sam gets to keep.

But perhaps the largest advantage of being legal isn't really economic or political. It's how easy it is to be with family and friends, and that's why the deeply misguided notion behind the amendment proposal is so sad. Although some immigrant couples have children on U.S. soil, many others were forced to choose between supporting their families economically in the U.S. or being with them physically in their home country.

If you talk to immigrants, many of them have stories of how they are forced live apart from their spouse, parent, or child for years. They've often missed family events: A granddaughter's birth, a cousin's wedding, the passing of a grandmother. You hear stories about families that are broken -- sometimes permanently -- due to their immigration status. "Illegal" immigrants are sometimes forced to choose between a family unified in poverty or a dispersed family with a bit more money in its pocket.

In this regard, citizenship -- or at least legal status -- has real value for these families in a way that sloganeering anti-immigration activists can't match.

Andrew Wainer is the Immigration Policy Analyst for the Bread for the World Institute. This blog post was originally posted at the Bread for the World Institute.

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