This article first appeared on December 15, 2007 in the Greensboro News & Record.
What does it mean to be a citizen? The stir about illegal immigrants attending N.C. community colleges forces us to confront this question head on. Despite all the rhetoric, those who would simply ignore the law for the sake of what they consider to be a nobler good not only undermine the rule of law, but what it means to be a citizen. And while voices charging xenophobia are growing louder, this issue is not about blood and soil. It is ultimately about respect for fundamental institutions.
Governor Easley disagrees. "The people we are talking about were brought here as babies and young children through no fault of their own," he says. "They distinguished themselves throughout our K-12 system. Now, I’m not willing to grind my heel in their faces and slam the door on them." Has the governor ever been to a N.C. community college ESL class? The "people we’re talking about" are very often in their 30s and 40s – certainly here of their own volition. Still, while we may share his feelings in rare instances, we should have grave concerns about a governor who is not first-and-foremost a steward of the law – notwithstanding his lame duck status.
Before returning to questions about the meaning of citizenship, we should take the time to dispel some popular, but false narratives regarding this issue:
1) The children have no say where they live. Eighteen-year-olds are not children. They are full-grown adults. Prior to that they were given free, subsidized public education simply by virtue of being children – despite the fact that their parents may not have paid into the system from which they benefited. But as eighteen-year-olds, it is insulting to them and to our intelligence to call them children. While use of the word has been popular among those trying to garner sympathy in the face of better arguments, it doesn’t work on this issue – particularly since college is a privilege, not a right. Indeed, it is a privilege reserved for adult citizens.
2) We’re only talking about 340-odd students in a system that serves over 200,000. Even if we believed that every undocumented enrollee is being 100-percent honest about his or her status, the cat is out of the bag. Similar policies in Texas have resulted in a 900 percent increase in enrollment by illegals since implementation.
3) We profit from their attendance, because they pay out-of-state tuition. Only 12.5 percent of community college funding comes from tuition. That means 86.5 percent is subsidized by taxpaying U.S. citizens. Out-of-state tuition does not "profit" make, and we cannot wish away the costs of building, lighting and maintaining these colleges to win rhetorical points.
4) People who think that illegal immigrants should not receive publicly subsidized higher education are hateful nativists. While this controversy may have stirred up some unpleasant emotions among some North Carolinians, this issue is ultimately about the law. Indeed, one can agree that the legal immigration system should be fixed and streamlined, but ignoring the law at the periphery is not the way to fix it or streamline it. Such is neither xenophobia nor nativism, but respect for the rule of law.
That leads us back to the question of what it means to be a citizen. We may quibble endlessly about what sort of goods and services the government should provide. That seems to be the zigzag of politics. But there is no question that such provision is reserved for those who – either via naturalization or birth – benefit from the legal auspices conferred by the United States Constitution. If we said these benefits should accrue to all comers, the very notion of citizenship dissolves. Those who may or may not be taxpayers would then consume public goods in the name of some wayward cosmopolitanism. But what would we have lost?
Citizenship is not some arbitrary designation. It is membership in a political community and carves out a special, two-way relationship between a person and the institutions of the state. We may all agree that the process for becoming a citizen is long and burdensome and should be less so. But we cannot conclude from that, however, that the rights and privileges of citizenship should fall like manna from heaven until our system of naturalization is reformed. If we do, we are saying that the appropriate mechanism for change is not judicial, legislative or democratic processes at all, but lawbreaking. If reform occurs outside our legal order, that order has been made impotent. At that point, we are no longer a nation of laws, but a nation of caprice. Citizenship and order become curiosities of a bygone era.