As President Donald Trump tries to reverse the tide of immigration to the United States, it’s worth considering what it means to be an American citizen.
It’s an issue that has been percolating in my brain for the past few years, ever since it became popular to say babies shouldn’t become Americans just because their illegal immigrant mothers gave birth on U.S. soil.
Trump, in November 2015, said it wouldn’t be a problem to end the practice of extending citizenship to these “anchor babies,” as they have been called.
Republican Mark Hurt, who is running for Democrat Joe Donnelly’s seat in the U.S. Senate next year, brought it up recently when he was in Merrillville. Hurt said he planned to address it if he’s elected because of his perception that these newborn American citizens and their parents are a drain on American social services.
I pointed out that my wife is the granddaughter of two immigrants who left Italy to create a new life in the United States, just as the Statue of Liberty beckoned them to do.
If nativity isn’t an arbiter of citizenship, I asked, what kind of test would be used? Would my father-in-law have had to pass some kind of citizenship test? Would my wife?
Hurt was stumped.
But it’s a question that is worth asking as the nation approaches its 250th birthday in 2026. What does it mean to be an American citizen?
I’ve been listening to some of those Great Courses, essentially auditing college courses while listening to lectures in the car. The lengthy series on the Roman Empire notes that Rome had different levels of citizenship, bringing conquered people into the fold partially, if not completely. For example, some of the citizens had all the rights except the ability to vote. Should the United States do something like that for newcomers?
Or should we consider applying the naturalization process to all Americans, forcing them to pass a test to be considered citizens?
Of course, if that were the case, what would be the status of minors who had yet to pass that test?
You might be surprised to learn the definition of citizenship in the United States has changed over the years, but only if you have forgotten about our nation’s history.
Indiana’s first constitution, for example, forbade blacks from settling in Indiana. The slavery issue had not yet been decided in 1816; the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation were still half a century away.
And it wasn’t until the 1920s that women gained the universal right to vote, granting them full citizenship in that sense.
The U.S. Constitution does say, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside," but that’s not in the original version of the Constitution or even the Bill of Rights. It’s spelled out in the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868.
So what does it mean to be an American citizen? What are the rights and responsibilities? And how is citizenship defined and determined? To whom should citizenship be extended?
And should the Statue of Liberty be a beacon to all, or just to some?
These are questions still being debated as the nation approaches its 250th birthday.