By C.N. Le
In my first post, I would like to discuss an issue in which I have both an academic and a personal interest: the question of who qualifies to be an "American." The question is of particular interest to me because I am a Vietnamese refugee. I came to the U.S. at the age of five and since then have traveled down the winding road of assimilation, ethnic identity, and social segregation.
A recent article in the Christian
Science Monitor caught my attention. In many locales around the country, there is a small but growing movement to extend the right to vote to non-citizen immigrants. Of course, one of the basic benefits of being a U.S. citizen is the privilege of being able to vote in elections. Perhaps not surprisingly, these proposals have evoked strong opinions on both sides.
Supporters argue that non-citizens are long-term residents who care about the same kinds of local issues that all citizens do: good schools, safe streets, reliable trash collection. Many pay taxes. Some are US military veterans. "They're living there, they have their kids in school, they're working, they're contributing to the local economy," says Kathleen Coll, a cultural anthropologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "They're full, complete local citizens [who are] affected by local policies."
Some advocates want to limit voting rights to legal immigrants who intend to become citizens but haven't completed the process. Because naturalization takes on average eight years, the Migration Policy Institute reports, parents could see their 10-year-old graduate from high school before they have a say in the public school system.
But enfranchising non-citizens would unfairly dilute the strength of citizens' votes, says one critic, Steve Cameron, director of research at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. For opponents, the practice is just another step in accommodating unnecessary --and sometimes unlawful -- immigrants.
The debate around the merits of immigration -- legal and illegal-- is still raging in this country. As I've posted on several times on my personal blog, I strongly support the rights of both legal and illegal immigrants. Academic research has shown quite convincingly that legal immigrants contribute significant benefits to American society, culture, and economy.
When it comes to measuring the societal impact of illegal immigrants, the data is more of a mixed bag. While valid empirical evidence exists on both sides, the prevailing academic consensus is that taken as a whole, the presence of illegal immigrants results in more benefits than costs for American society. However, there are two very important caveats.
First, such benefits are most evident at the national level. However, states such as California, Texas, and Arizona, as well as large cities that contain the largest numbers of illegal immigrants usually have to bear a disproportionate share of the significant costs involved with illegal immigration (costs that include.social services, medical care, and education). The second caveat is that illegal immigrants may also have a slight negative effect on the wages of low-skilled workers, as they are generally willing to work for less money than native-born Americans will.
Nonetheless, taken as a whole, the bulk of the sociological and economic research argues that illegal immigration produces more benefits to American society than costs. The overwhelmingly positive impact of legal immigrants forms the basis for my strong support for the economic, legal, and voting rights of immigrants.
As the Christian Science Monitor article argues, the most important factor in deciding who gets to vote should be whether a person contributes to the cultural, political, and economic strength of the country, not whether a person happens to have been born inside the U.S. If someone who avoids paying taxes, has no sense of civic duty, and engages in criminal activity, but happens to be born in the U.S. has a right to vote, shouldn't a non-citizen legal immigrant who pays taxes, obeys the law, and is actively involved in his or her community have that right?
To paraphrase the great Martin Luther King, Jr., what should matter is not the country in which you were born, but your deeds and actions while living in that country.