Who gets to be an American? I don’t mean who gets to live here. I mean, who gets to be an American citizen? This large question weighs heavily on the smaller minds on our political right. I recall that Alan Keyes argued – if that’s the accurate term for an assertion unbacked by facts – that his 2004 Senate opponent Barack Obama is not a citizen because he was not born on the Fourth of July or something. Now Donald Trump wonders aloud whether U.S. Senator Ted Cruz is an American, Cruz having been born in Canada to a Cuban father. Cruz in turn hints that Donald Trump isn’t American either, having been born in New York City.
All of which got me to thinking – what transforms a mere person into a citizen? More than a few Americans, I expect, would insist that the test of a good citizen is his patriotism, which is like saying the test of a good husband is how fiercely he hates his rivals for his wife’s attentions. Unfortunately, neither residence, place of birth or parentage is much better as a requirement, however convenient such standards can be applied. Instead, U.S. citizenship is earned by passing a test of how much you know about the nation’s history and government. It makes as much sense to grant driver’s licenses to anyone who knows how tires are made.
The state of Illinois does no better. Our lawmakers, concerned that our own proto-citizens were growing up so ignorant of the basics of Illinois public life that they might vote for the other guy, demanded that our eighth-graders study at least one semester of civics and pass a test on the U.S. Constitution before being allowed to graduate from high school. (See “Voter reform,” June 11, 2015.) Here are some typical questions.
- Who can veto a bill passed by the General Assembly?
- Who may call a special session of the General Assembly?
- How are Illinois judges usually selected?
- The highest court in Illinois is?
- What is the capital of Illinois?
- Who is the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives?
I hope I am not wrong is assuming that at least a few bright 11-year-olds in the Commonwealth answer such questions in the way they deserve. (What is the capital of Illinois? “I.” The highest court in Illinois is Jo Daviess County’s circuit court, which meets at approximately 633 feet above sea level.) For example, rather than ask who is the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, wouldn’t it be more to the point to ask what is the role of the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives?
Over the past few months, legislators and courts in the South and West have asserted that each state has the authority to disregard federal laws and make its own rules about immigration and marriage. Here in the late state of Illinois, the governor asserts his right to decide who settles in Illinois from outside the national borders – also a decision hitherto reserved to federal authorities. Right-wing thinkers have been arguing for years that the states ought also to set and enforce their own standards for citizenship within their borders. They note that, until it was changed by the 14th Amendment, the Constitution did not explicitly create U.S. citizenship; instead, citizenship was conferred by each of the sovereign states that made up the union. A Republican sweep of the White House and both houses of Congress might see a movement to restore state citizenship.
If that happens, we got some test-makin’ to do. I can think of any number of appropriate questions. (Who said, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent?” When and what was the Haymarket massacre? What were the Black Codes? Why – to adapt a quote from “Paddy” Bauler – ain’t Illinois ready for reform?) But the problem is not the questions but the test itself. Might as well ask would-be citizens who is buried in Douglas’s tomb, or what is the best bus to get from Union Station to the Art Institute. (Actually, that last one is a pretty good question.)
A better test of citizenship, it seems to me, is how one lives. A recent report to the British prime minister proposed that good citizenship of that sort ought to be encouraged by, say, offering modest local tax rebates to residents who organize neighborhood recycling projects or helping children to learn to read. I like it. If it comes to it, every immigrant should be told that she can become an Illinois citizen in good standing by getting elected president of her PTA chapter or managing a Little League team or standing up during a zoning committee hearing and saying something – anything – intelligent. Come to think of it, that ought to be the standard for us natives as well.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at [email protected].