Wednesday, September 5, 2012

OTR: Citizenship

One of the proudest possessions in my home is a piece of paper. It hangs on the wall in a simple frame. The paper is creased and worn, the ink faded, but legible. It is a document 156 years old. It is my great-great-grandfather's Naturalization papers -- his citizenship.

I sit and shake my head when I hear the various arguments about how requiring identification to vote disenfranchises people. I look at that worn piece of paper and see the folds. It is clear to me that my great-great-grandfather carried that document with him from time to time, folded in a pocket. I suspect that he needed it when he applied for a job and likely when he registered to vote.  It was likely a very prized possession, yet one that was frequently carried and used by him. It was so prized that it was saved and framed by a later generation and passed down to today. I don't think that I have a photograph of the man, but I have his citizenship papers. Funny how that old piece of paper can survive, but people today can't seem to be bothered to use modern technology to get a simple piece of identification.

Funny that today, people want to be handed the privilege of United States citizenship just for crossing a line on a map. Or for overstaying a visa. Yes, people want to come to this country. They always have. They want better lives. I'm sure my great-great-grandfather wanted that for himself -- and he worked hard to achieve that life. But today people want to come here and never renounce their allegiance to their former country. They expect driving tests to be given in Polish or Spanish. They expect their children to be taught in their native tongue. It bothers me to ride around the Chicago area on Polish Constitution Day or Mexican Independence Day. I see foreign flags flying more than I see American flags. I can't imagine being free to do the same with an American flag on the Fourth of July in Krakow or Mexico City. People should celebrate their heritage and be respectful of their heritage, but many seem determined to never let go of old allegiances. The beauty of America is the melting pot... that a generation after coming here, the Sullivans and the Schmidts and the Kowalskis and the Perezes and the Roncallis all can speak the same language. They can share the same understanding of what it means to be an American. But I fear that is no longer always the case.

One hundred fifty six years ago, a man named Cunningham renounced his allegiance to Queen Victoria in Geneva, Illinois. He would follow the railroad to Boone, Iowa and be buried less than 20 years later in a prominent place in the Catholic cemetery. His ancestors would carry his family name and hold on to a simple piece of paper. We have pride in our heritage -- a heritage that is Irish and German and French... and likely more than that. But it is first and foremost American. That old creased paper reminds me of that every time I look at it.

Citizenship is a privilege and must be earned. It must be protected and held in high regard. It is not an entitlement or a "right" to anyone who wants to use it. Citizenship, like freedom, is never free.