For New Citizens, Against Illegal Immigration

Perhaps because of the fear of President Trump, the United States is getting fewer illegal immigrants and more immigrant citizens. That’s good news on both counts.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection says the number of people apprehended or found inadmissible along the Mexican border is down by comparison to last year. The figure rose in August, the last month for which it’s available, but it rose the previous August too, and the gap is substantial. Nationally, CBP apprehensions are down from last year; the 2017 figure is for 11 months, but the drop is nearly 31 percent, and it would take an extraordinary 12th month to make that up.

That’s significant because, for obvious reasons, it’s hard to track how many people successfully enter the country illegally. But unsuccessful attempts can be a proxy for successful ones. If the Border Patrol is catching at least as high a percentage of would-be illegal immigrants as it did before Mr. Trump became president, then a decline in apprehensions means a decline in illegal immigration. For illegal immigration to go up while apprehensions go down would require the Trump Administration, for all its tough talk, to be less effective than its predecessor at catching people entering the country illegally.

A naturalization ceremony in the Rotunda of the National Archives, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are kept. Photo by Lawrence Jackson for the Obama White House.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports, applications for citizenship have gone up. Lawful permanent residents are eligible for citizenship after five years, but they can also just keep their green cards. As more choose to pursue citizenship, the backlog in processing applications has also risen.

The decline in illegal immigration and the increase in naturalization applications may both result from President Trump’s tough approach. Foreigners considering coming to America illegally may be deterred by the sense that deportation is now more likely. And some lawful permanent residents, knowing that green cards can be revoked, want the security that citizenship provides.

But this isn’t just a personal matter for immigrants and potential immigrants. It’s a question of who belongs in America. Ours is not a nation of blood and soil; it is a joint project founded on principles and a mutual commitment to secure one another’s rights. Everyone who is permanently here should be part of that project — and no one who does not want to be part of it should live here. Where you or your ancestors come from has nothing to do with that, but citizenship does.

Contrary to the standard libertarian view, who should enter a country and on what terms is a legitimate question for that country’s government to decide. The principles of individual rights do not enforce themselves; they must be given specific legal form and put into practice by human beings. That takes work. And part of that work is making sure the people in positions of power value the principles of individual rights.

Yet if everyone who enters the country immediately gains the full rights of citizenship, merely walking across the border is sufficient to assume the supreme office in our republican system of government: the office of a full citizen, with the right to vote, to run for office, and to be summoned for jury duty. And anyone might walk across the border, including people who want to implement Communism or the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam. All it would take to take over our country would be an influx of enough such people. But if you agree that we should keep such people out, you reject the principle of open borders and accept that the government has the legitimate authority to decide who may come in.

Alternatively, an advocate of open borders might distinguish physical presence from citizenship. But even setting aside concerns that immigrants with bad values might pass those values to their native-born children, who would be citizens, there is a problem with having a large number of people here who are not citizens. One of the fundamental principles of the American Republic is that all of us are equal before the law. That principle should be reinforced in daily life by the knowledge that virtually all the people we deal with are our equals in legal and moral rights. But an alien does not have the same legal rights as a citizen. The more people are present without the full rights of citizenship, the less we have a culture of equal citizenship — and the easier it is to think in terms of who should have what rights, instead of in terms of what rights we all should have.

So we shouldn’t allow just anyone to become a citizen, and we should avoid having people become residents without becoming citizens. That means we have to make and enforce laws about who can enter and who can stay.

Unfortunately, such arguments have been used to support unduly restrictive, even racist immigration laws. They should not be. The Declaration of Independence proclaims truths, not culturally contingent values somehow tied to race. Because our principles are true, and true of human beings regardless of ancestry, they can and should be adopted by everyone. And anyone, of any race, who believes in the self-evident truths of the Declaration, wants to sign on to the Constitution as the means of implementing those truths, and can earn a living in our economy should be welcome to become one of us. That includes at least some of the people who are currently here illegally; surely people who grew up here and have no memories of any other country should not be exiled from the only home they’ve ever known just because their parents brought them here as babies.

But no one should be welcome to stay here without becoming one of us. The current status of “lawful permanent resident” has become a form of second-class citizenship, and there should be no second-class citizens. So it’s good news that more LPRs are choosing to become citizens, but it’s not good enough. The law should be changed so that they have a choice: Become Americans, or be treated as foreigners. And for the most part, foreigners who intend to remain foreigners should be expected go back to their own countries.

Foreigners can, of course, be welcome temporarily — for a week’s vacation, a four-year degree, or some other finite project. And two classes of foreigners should be welcome for more than that: People who need shelter from persecution, but want to go home as soon as they can, should not be regarded as here permanently. They should be free to retain their loyalties, provided that they are not themselves hostile to our Republic. Similarly, businesspeople, professionals, and performers who are based both here and in their own countries can be regarded as frequent visitors, and it is worth giving some of them a legal status that lets them come and go as they please. But all admission of aliens must be evaluated in the context of the goal of a nation of citizens.

So the increase in naturalization is something to celebrate — and so is the decline in illegal immigration. Illegal immigrants are generally people who are here permanently with no prospect of becoming citizens. Worse, they have reason to fear interacting with the government (because they are at risk of deportation), and that probably makes them less likely to report crimes.

Both reduced illegal immigration and increased naturalization mean that there are fewer aliens in America. That’s as it should be. Now we should move towards reforming immigration law so that all those who are American at heart can become American citizens — and so that most people who don’t want to be citizens go elsewhere.