What does it mean to be an American citizen? Although that sounds like an essay question for middle school students, it is also a question that may be answered in the next presidential election. Most of the Democratic presidential candidates have a different definition of American citizenship than previous presidents.
Let’s start with some basic facts. In order to become a naturalized citizen of the US, you must demonstrate English proficiency and pass a citizenship exam. Most Americans believe that having some ability to read and write English is important and having some civics knowledge would help future citizens appreciate America and its history. But a number of the candidates (like Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke) want to completely eliminate the US citizenship exam.
What about people from other countries who cross our border without permission or who overstay their visas? Should that action be considered a crime? A majority of the candidates (such as Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren) don’t think it should be a crime. Most of them believe they should be allowed to stay in this country and have a pathway to citizenship. But, as I just mentioned, that may not even require English proficiency or a basic knowledge of America.
How would we know who is here illegally? You can use E-Verify, but many of the candidates that I just mentioned along with Bill de Blasio and Kirsten Gillibrand want to prevent the federal government from using E-Verify. You could ask the people if they are US citizens on the census. Bernie Sanders says that would be “absolutely bigoted language.” John Hickenlooper says the question is “corrupt and illegal.” Never mind. The Supreme Court just ruled that the census cannot have a citizenship question.
And as those last few comments illustrate, you really aren’t even allowed to ask the question about what it means to be an American citizen.