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Robert Reich
NationofChange / Op-Ed
Published: Wednesday 6 February 2013
They may seem unrelated, but all these issues—who gets to be an American citizen, how easily American citizens can vote, whether global corporations are American citizens entitled to influence our elections, and whether American citizens are entitled to a judge and jury before being executed—are pieces of the same larger debate: Are we more fearful of “them” out there, or more confident about “us?”

The Real Debate Over American Citizenship

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Sometimes we have a national conversation without realizing it. We talk about different aspects of the same larger issue without connecting the dots.

That’s what’s happening now with regard to the meaning of American citizenship and the basic rights that come with it. 

On one side are those who think of citizenship as a matter of exclusion and privilege — of protecting the nation by keeping out those who are undesirable, and putting strict limits on who is allowed to exercise the full rights of citizenship. 

On the other are those who think of citizenship inclusively — as an ongoing process of helping people become full participants in America. 

One part of this conversation involves immigration. I’m not just referring the question of whether or how people living in the United States illegally can become citizens. (Courtesy of our fast-growing Latino population, 70 percent of whom voted for President Obama last November, we’re far closer to resolving that one than we were a year ago.) 

It’s also a question of who we want to join us. Engraved on a bronze plaque mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty are Emma Lazarus’ immortal words, written in 1883: “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me.”

By contrast, a bipartisan group of lawmakers last week introduced a bill giving priority to the highly skilled. “Our immigration system needs to be … more welcoming of highly skilled immigrants and the enormous contributions they can make to our economy,” said one of its sponsors, Florida Senator Marco Rubio.  

So is the priority to be those who need us, or those whom we need? 

Another part of the same larger conversation concerns voting rights — the means by which citizens participate in our democracy. 

Long waiting lines depressed voter turnout last November, especially in cities where Democrats outnumber Republicans. One study showed blacks and Hispanics on average had to wait nearly twice as long to vote as whites. Some gave up trying. 

Voter registration is part of that issue, along with what sorts of proof of citizenship states may require. Dozens of legal challenges and lower-court decisions were made in the months leading up to the November election. Some are heading to appellate courts. 

Congressional Democrats are pushing legislation to require states to ease voting requirements — allowing more early voting, online voting, and quicker means of registering. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is preparing to hear a major challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 potentially giving states more leeway to tighten voting standards.

A different aspect of the citizenship conversation concerns the rights of corporations to influence elections. The Court’s bizarre 2010 decision in “Citizens United versus Federal Election Commission” — deeming corporations people under the First Amendment, with unlimited rights to spend money on elections — didn’t consider the question of corporate citizenship as such. 

But it’s likely to become a big issue in the future as large American companies that pour lots of money into our elections morph into global corporations without any particular national identity. 

Most of Chrysler is owned by Fiat, and most of Fiat is owned by non-Americans. Both IBM and GE have more non-American employees and customers than American, and foreign ownership of both continues to increase. At what point do these global entities forfeit their right to influence U.S. elections?

And then there’s the growing debate about whether American citizens have the right to a trial by an impartial judge and jury before the government executes them. 

You might think so. The Constitution guarantees American citizens “due process” of law. But a “white paper” from the Justice Department, recently obtained by NBC News, argues that an “informed, high-level” government official can unilaterally decide to put an American citizen to death without any judicial oversight if that official decides the citizen in question is an operational leader of Al Qaeda or one of its allies. 

Even if you trust high-level officials in the current administration, their argument should give you pause. The relative ease by which targeted drones can now kill particular individuals far from recognized battlefields (as did the drone attack on American-born Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in September, 2011) raises uncomfortable questions about the protections accorded American citizens, as well as the potential for arbitrary decision making about who lives or dies. 

They may seem unrelated, but all these issues — who gets to be an American citizen, how easily American citizens can vote, whether global corporations are American citizens entitled to influence our elections, and whether American citizens are entitled to a judge and jury before being executed — are pieces of the same larger debate: Are we more fearful of “them” out there, or more confident about “us”? Is our goal to constrain and limit citizenship, or to enlarge and fulfill its promise? 

It’s an old debate in America. The greatness of our nation lies in our overriding tendency to choose the latter. 

This article was originally posted on Robert Reich's blog.

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ABOUT Robert Reich


ROBERT B. REICH, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including his latest best-seller, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future;” “The Work of Nations,” which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His widely-read blog can be found at Robert Reich's new film, "Inequality for All" is available on DVD
and blu-ray, and on Netflix in February.

Mr. Reich and also Mr. Strong

Mr. Reich and also Mr. Strong seem to ignore the fact that illegal immigrants are uninvited and unapproved visitors to our country. This nation should control both the number and the qualifications of the persons it allows to live and work in the country. This doesn't entail a prohibition on immigration, just strict regulation. Mr. Reich asks "So is the priority to be those who need us, or those whom we need?" Why can't the priority be those who need us and whom we need?

If there is strong evidence that a US citizen is involved in terrorist acts either inside or outside the country, maybe a grand jury should be convened to consider the issue. If the jury agrees that there is sufficient evidence against the citizen, then maybe the citizen should be invited to come forward and participate in a trial. If he refuses, can this be taken as a waiver of his right to a jury trial? Isn't the threshold for his punishment lowered by his resistance to participation?

Of course, corporations are not persons, but whether they should be able to contribute to campaigns in an unlimited way is another issue and much more complicated one.

Congratulations on an

Congratulations on an excellent and incisive contribution. Recommended
as essential is the essential analysis by Gabriel Kolko in MAIN CURRENTS OF MODERN AMERICAN HISTORY, especially as concerns labour-intensive and capital- intensive history of American capitalism. Much of Kolko's analysis provides solid basis to developments in legislation concerning immigration. Add to this Lawerence Davidson's AMERICA'S PALESTINE and FOREIGN POLICY INC. once more focusing on US relationships concerning immigration reforms.

If we consider four groups of

If we consider four groups of people entering say Arizona and look at the differences maybe we can shed light on effect and on reasons for borders.

1 - 1,000 tourists
2 - 1,000 retirees from New York and elsewhere
3 - 1,000 entering the US without papers ("illiegal" by definition)
4 - 1,000 regular citizens moving to AZ

The tourist group uses resources but pays for those resources with outside money. Then they leave and may or may not come back. Important money but not resident and so not always consistent.

The retirees use resources which come from the working population across the US (and Arizona) but pay for them as customers to local shops and so forth.

The regular citizens are not called immigrants, just migrants, or fellow citizens and entered Arizona for a variety of reasons, jobs being among them meaning that they are coming from outside for jobs in AZ. They also include entrepreneurs who create jobs with small businesses. And they partake in benefits such as education. Indeed, some are out-of-state students at high tuition rates. They become part of the customer population (= jobs for others).

The "illegals" are not so unlike the "regulars." They also come for jobs or even create small businesses and they go to schools. They don't get to vote on matters which affect them and don't try (keeping a low profile). They don't get to keep any FICA in their checks (assuming they are not already being cheated by employers) so all of that money goes to citizens. But they are part of the overall customer population (= jobs for others).

The last two groups bring families with homes as community builders, adding to the existing social and economic networks while the first two groups make use of existing community. Retirees also add stability but usually not growing families. They will eventually use health resources.

The last two groups take jobs but also provide additional customer bases so the net effect is growth. Because one group is "illegal" they are more vulnerable to being paid less and not being able to complain, undercutting the legal groups. Non of these groups is setting the rules.

Which brings us to borders. They are mostly good for determining who is paying for the roads and the water systems, sewers, etcetera. We don't care if people migrate to a state from other states within the US. For some reason we think all the effects of those "internal" moves are vastly different from a move into a state from outside the US. But anytime and anywhere people move they bring pretty much the same social and economic effects by the time the dust settles (assuming any dust to settle).

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