Monday, August 09, 2004
I have generally stayed away from the issue of immigration. Not because I don't have opinions, but because, like gun control or abortion, emotions run so high it is almost impossible to have a rational discussion. But this NYT article deserves some commentary. Apparently there is an effort underway do give the all residents of a city the right to vote. Whether they are citizens or not, legal immigrants or illegal.
I think this a truly awful idea. It comes from admirable humanitarian impulses, but it is fundamentally wrongheaded. Citizenship is essentially tied up with the right to vote. You cannot separate the two. Voting is an act of communal self-government, and as such participants must be members in good standing of the political community.
So why not just grant citizenship to all residents? After all, they contribute to the economy and civic life, so they should have an appropriate share of the burdens and responsibilities of citizenship. I think this argument confuses the nature of citizenship. Citizenship is not merely an economic contract. As Aristotle argues in the Politics, members of a community are not merely cooperating in a common economic and social enterprise, they are members of a community with shared moral principles. Political communities are about something- they have core animating principles that motivate their members.
Let me give you a concrete example. If France adopted the U.S. Constitution and U.S. laws, would they suddenly become indistinguishable from America? Of course not- they have a very distinct history, cultural, and set of values. They are a different people.
Now some might argue that the United States is not a homogenous cultural unit like France. I think this is a common misconception. Communities are not defined by their ethnic composition but by their communal principles. Both France and the U.S. are ethnically diverse populations, if you go back far enough. The U.S. is somewhat more adaptable in its culture, but the difference is one of degree, not kind. But if someone with French grandparents were to visit Paris, he would realize how American he or she really is.
So by all means, work to protect the economic and social interests of immigrants. But don't confuse their contributions to a society with membership in that society.