What does it mean to be a citizen? In the United States we have birthright citizenship, meaning that anyone born on U.S. soil is automatically a citizen.
However, that isn’t the only way to become a U.S. citizen. We also allow children born to at least one U.S. parent outside the country to automatically become a citizen. We allow immigrants who have been lawful permanent residents in the U.S. for at least five years (sometimes three, sometimes even less) to apply to become citizens.
Is that all that it means? Can you be a citizen if you don’t have a document to prove it? Some people were born at home in the United States and don’t have birth certificates. Many U.S.-born people don’t have passports. Can you be a citizen of a place where you have never been before? There is no legal requirement that citizens born abroad ever live, or even visit, the United States.
My husband, Daniel, was born in South Africa, where he lived until he was 17 years old. Because his U.S. citizen mother lived in the United States for the requisite number of years before moving to South Africa, he is a U.S. citizen born abroad. When he entered the United States for the first time, the immigration officer at the airport told him “welcome home!” to a place he had never before set foot.
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The United States was so foreign to him that when he arrived in Chicago in December 2001 he was wearing shorts and sandals, having just left the South African summer and never having seen snow. I imagine Sens. John McCain and Ted Cruz also have similar stories of when they first came to the United States.
I believe that being a citizen means more than having a specific document. It means being connected to and engaged with your community. By that definition, there are many people in our community who could be considered citizens. There are many people who have lived in the United States for most of their lives, attended schools, worked, paid taxes and are indistinguishable from any other resident in our community.
When I was first assisting young adults with applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (a temporary legal status for young people who have lived in the United States since they were children, attended school and don’t have a significant criminal history), I was struck by how many of these young adults referred to themselves as “citizens” when writing a personal statement in support of their application.
Citizenship isn’t just a document. It is also a feeling of investment in and responsibility to your community. The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided in Evenwel v. Abbott that for purposes of drawing legislative districts, population means all persons who live in the state, not just eligible voters.
In the unanimous decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted Alexander Hamilton’s remarks at the 1787 Federal Convention, “there can be no truer principle than this — that every individual of the community at large has an equal right to the protection of government.” One of the founding principles of our country is that everyone in our community matters.
Of course, noncitizens cannot vote. They do not have a direct voice in our government. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t still responsible and invested members of our communities.
For those of you who are eligible to become citizens, I personally urge you to apply. If you live in Kansas City and apply to become a citizen before June 2016 you will most likely have your application adjudicated in time to register to vote in the November election. You have a responsibility to be the voice for people in your community who may not have one. In this election, more than ever, that voice matters.
Valerie Sprout of Shawnee is an immigration attorney focusing on family-based and humanitarian cases. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.