by Jules Witcover

Independence Day came amid unusual focus on the estimated 11 million undocumented aliens already here, yearning to breathe free without the threat of what Mitt Romney clumsily labeled self-deportation.

The Senate has passed by a nearly two-thirds vote a compromise immigration reform bill including a path to citizenship, with considerable strings attached. House Speaker John Boehner has declared -- for now, anyway -- that the bill is not going to pass in the House on his watch.

All this only emphasizes the high price of American citizenship, which should be the case considering what the founding fathers created 237 years ago. Out of a shamble of British colonies, they undertook a high-stakes gamble to find a new way to govern themselves.

The Declaration of Independence, finished by Thomas Jefferson on July 2, 1776 and adopted by the Second Continental Congress two days later, signaled the start from scratch of a great social and political experiment. It struggled through the false start of the flawed Articles of Confederation in 1781 and finally got things right at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.

In the course of this rather miraculous political exercise, a war of independence was fought and won over the six and a half years from the British firing on Lexington and Concord in 1775 to the surrender at Yorktown in 1781. Over that time, the enlightened dreamers put both their lives and their ingenuity on the line to seize and secure what was to become history's longest surviving democracy.

The dream itself survived adventurous and sometimes quarrelsome expansion westward and most significantly a hugely divisive and destructive Civil War between the Northern and Southern states. The war eventually preserved the Union and ended "the peculiar institution" of slavery that scarred the nation's highest standards of personal liberty.

Subsequently, this young nation grew into manhood through two horrible world wars and a series of lesser but still costly ones that tested its response to new international responsibilities. In the course of all this, the United States became a magnet for new waves of immigration that brought fresh energies and also economic stresses with them.

In the latest effort to accommodate the millions of people who have entered the country in a wholesale end run of our immigration laws, the new push for reform has emphasized among its requirements for citizenship the learning of English. It seems aimed particularly at men and women of Hispanic origin who have breached the southern border with Mexico. Thus, the Senate bill proposes to beef up border fencing and surveillance.

Political reality apparently demanded border security measures as a condition for the reform to pass the Senate, although it may not be sufficient to loosen House Republican opposition to the bill or even to a less comprehensive version being paid lip service by Boehner.

It seems appropriate at this particular time, therefore, for both natural-born Americans and aliens striving to just to stay here or to become naturalized citizens, to recall and reflect upon the unique origins of this country. For all its faults, it has remained the residence and destination of choice for millions of the foreign-born, and more certainly to come.

Most Americans today, to be sure, have paid little or no price for their own citizenship, having neither engaged in any active way in achieving it or preserving it on any battlefield. That burden has fallen to a small segment of men and women patriotically volunteering for military service or, in earlier years of national emergency, conscripted by law.

It might be said that for most of us, luck has been on our side. Resentment toward others coming in through the back door is understandable, but among the laments raised by Jefferson against the British sovereign long ago was that he was "obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners." The founders' notion from the start was that this new country would be a welcoming one.

Economic circumstances clearly have developed over two centuries to complicate that intention. But they should not be an excuse for failing to confront the subsequent challenges in the remarkable spirit of determination and generosity that Jefferson called "a decent Respect for the Opinions of Mankind."




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The Path and Price of Citizenship