As the lines begin to blur between American citizens living in California and immigrants who are here legally, it's fair to begin asking, what's the difference? What rights and privileges should be reserved strictly for citizens?
These questions are highlighted by two bills that swept easily through the California Legislature, one already signed without much fanfare by Gov. Jerry Brown, the other awaiting his signature at this writing.
Essentially, they take some functions previously reserved entirely for citizens and open them up to legal residents, green card holders.
These developments really began almost 150 years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the Constitution's 14th Amendment applied to foreign residents of this country and not only to citizens. From then on, immigrants were entitled to equal protection under all laws. They already could own property, and right up to this day, they can hold virtually any job if they possess documents showing their presence here is legal.
So what's left as the exclusive realm of citizens? Voting and its offshoots, for one thing. One of those offshoots is jury duty, where voting rolls are usually used when state and federal courts summon individuals to serve. Another is working at the polls, where individuals sign up with county officials to verify that voters only cast one ballot and to assist anyone who can't understand how to use the state's seemingly ever-changing ballots, which in the last two decades have evolved from punching chads out of cards through electronic machines to the Ink-a-Vote system used in most counties today.
But the new law and its possible companion put big dents into these former reserves for citizens.
The one already signed for the first time explicitly allows legal immigrants who have not been naturalized to serve as poll workers, instructing voters on how to understand their ballots. The law allows election officials to appoint up to five persons who are not U.S. citizens to work at each precinct. That's more workers than some precincts now have.
"There are nearly 3 million (California) citizens who are fully eligible to vote and not English proficient," the bill's sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman Rob Bonta of Alameda, told a reporter. "We have a shortage of multilingual poll workers. There has to be language access at the polls."
But all naturalized citizens have passed a test administered in English. If they could do that, and then managed to register as voters, why shouldn't they understand their ballots?
The potential second new law allows non-citizen legal residents to serve on juries. This, of course, flies completely in the face of the longtime tradition (not a Constitutional requirement, though) that every American accused of a crime is entitled to an impartial jury composed of his or her peers. That has usually been interpreted to mean jury pools should contain a proportional mix of the populace of the area, considering race, gender and national origin.
But should anyone be tried by individuals who have never passed a test of their knowledge of American history, government and traditions? This may not be an absolute legal requirement, but how many citizens would want non-citizens to judge their guilt or innocence?
Then there's the question of how non-citizens might be called since they're not listed in the voting rolls where jury summons originate.
All these difficulties, of course, merely beg the central question raised by the new measures, which is that if duties and privileges long accorded only to citizens are now also assigned or given to non-citizens, what's the point of citizenship?
American citizenship, of course, has long been a cherished goal of immigrants, who often attain it only after hard work and significant costs. If fewer activities are now limited to citizens only, what happens to the incentive toward citizenship?
Blur the distinctions between citizens and those who are not and there's not much left to move people toward citizenship - perhaps just the reality that only citizenship would guarantee anyone the right to stay in this country if political winds ever shift radically and result in a mass expulsion of non-citizens.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org .