Linda Chavez

Jeb Bush's recent backtracking on the question of whether we should grant legal residency but withhold citizenship to the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the country today is far less draconian than some advocates for legalization are claiming. It is an idea that has been floated by others who support legalization, including scholar Peter Skerry of Boston College.

As Skerry points out in a recent article for National Affairs, not all immigrants -- and certainly not all of those who came here illegally -- want to become citizens. In 1986, when Congress granted legal status to approximately three million illegal immigrants living in the country at the time, only 41 percent eventually decided to naturalize.

Nonetheless, I think Bush is wrong -- and not because his position is too conservative, but because it is not conservative enough.

Conservatives should not want a country in which substantial numbers of those who reside here will eschew participating in the civic life of the country, with its obligations as well as its rights. Living here and enjoying the fruits of all this country offers should impose certain duties.

We all should know the history of this nation, understand our republican form of government, and be active and knowledgeable participants in choosing our leaders. Clearly, these characteristics do not apply even to everyone who was born here -- but we should be even more concerned that those we invite to live here, protected by our laws, should have the responsibility of participating in our civic life. It is not in our interest to have a two-tiered society in which a substantial number of those who have made their permanent homes in the United States are excluded from citizenship.

This policy of exclusion has been followed by other nations, with poor results. Germany, for example, for decades took in guest workers, who were denied eligibility for citizenship, along with their German-born children, until the early 1990s when Germany changed its laws. As a result, Germany became saddled with a large population of unassimilated, often embittered residents who had no allegiance to the nation in which they lived.


Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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