Elizabeth F. Cohen, the author of “Semi-Citizenship in Democratic Politics,” is an associate professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
Who deserves to be a U.S. citizen?
It’s a question President Obama and Congress are trying to answer. But it’s also one we’ve been grappling with since our country’s earliest days. The founders had a clear answer: People who immigrated and spent years building lives in this country deserved citizenship. They were also keenly aware that making new immigrants wait a long time for citizenship denied them the very rights that Americans had just fought to claim for themselves.
Today’s complex visa system and lengthy wait times, which for many people stretch from 10 to more than 20 years, stray from these roots.
During the 18th century, there were no illegal immigrants in the United States, but there was a large group of people who posed a far more noxious threat than those who overstayed a visa or crossed a border without an inspection. They were British Loyalists — men who had taken up arms against the American revolutionaries and risked their lives to undermine the very foundation of our union.