September 17 – Citizenship Day in the United States

Posted on September 17, 2018

Today is Constitution Day in the U.S. - and I've already written about that here.

But another name for today's holiday is Citizenship Day. And it's never been more important to think about the words citizen and citizenship than it is this year.

First, citizen means a person who legally lives in a particular nation, who owes allegiance to that nation, and who is entitled to protection as a member of the nation. You can be a citizen because you are "native" to the nation - in the United States, that means you were born in the U.S. - or you can be a citizen because you took the legal steps to become a citizen, even though you came from another country. The latter is called a naturalized citizen.

Citizenship is more complex. It can just mean the state of being a citizen, like, "Hooray! Maria finally got her citizenship!!"

But it usually means all the rights, privileges, and duties of being a member of a particular nation. In the U.S., these include the right to vote, the duty to serve on a jury when called (unless you can get out of jury duty, which an awful lot of people do an awful lot of the time), and the privilege of holding a U.S. passport (and being able to more easily travel in other nations than people with shaky legal status or no official paperwork).

The thing is, every nation sets its own system of citizenship, and whenever there is trouble - natural disasters, wars, corrupt or fascistic governments, and so forth - then people who are desperate for safety often cross borders, or try to, and then nations are pushed into having to deal with non-citizens and what to do with them.

Over the centuries, people around have generally not done great when refugees cross their borders. For every heartwarming story of a nation taking in refugees - like Bolivia taking in about 30,000 Jewish refugees during World War II - there seem to be dozens of awful stories - like the U.S. refusing entry to a ship full of 900 Jewish refugees who had made it all the way to just off the coast of Florida. (Yes, the ship had to return to war-torn Europe, and yes, lots of the people on that ship ended up being killed by Nazis!)

Shanghai was "the port of last resort" for many Jewish
asylum seekers during World War II, since the Chinese
city didn't require visas or passports for entry.
Immigrants who are not as desperate - not "asylum seekers," not refugees - get uneven treatment at various nations and at various times, as well. Between the years 1880 and 1920, the U.S. admitted more than 20 million immigrants, but in 1917 a literacy test was established, and in the early 1920s immigration quotas were established; World Wars and the Great Depression meant that immigration went way down.

Now many nations, and certainly the U.S., are struggling with conflicting ideas and goals. Should a society turn away outsiders so that its own citizens can enjoy the best opportunities for education and jobs? Should a society welcome outsiders, knowing that they tend to be hard workers and are often more loyal to their new home than are people who didn't have to struggle to get there? Should a nation allow rapid growth by admitting immigrants and refugees, knowing that more people in the country mean more people buying stuff - and therefore economic growth? Or should a nation try to control or even stop growth, knowing that space and resources only stretch so far?

I think everyone in the world, and certainly in the U.S., should try to be a little more empathetic and kind when dealing with asylum seekers and desperate refugees. It's really tough to know what to do, but at least we should be treating humans like humans!

On Citizenship Day in the U.S.A., I urge all U.S. citizens to use compassion while considering policies about immigration, asylum, legal and illegal residents, DACA, borders, citizenship requirements, voting requirements, and ICE. 

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