Open to All: The Big Job

When the center for immigration Studies reported recently that 35 million American residents were foreign-born, the highest number in the nation's history, you could just imagine the reaction of the nativist types who wish all those people from elsewhere would just stay there. I found a quotation that summed up that attitude perfectly:

"Today, instead of a well-knit homogenous citizenry, we have a body politic made up of all and every diverse element. Today, instead of a nation descended from generations of freemen bred to a knowledge of the principles and practices of self-government, of liberty under law, we have a heterogeneous population no small proportion of which is sprung from races that, throughout the centuries, have known no liberty at all... In other words, our capacity to maintain our cherished institutions stands diluted by a stream of alien blood."

That's circa 1927, the lament of an advocate of restrictive immigration. But there's never really anything new under the sun, or in the United States, and the notion that those who have been here awhile are inherently better than those who have just arrived still gets a lot of traction. It even holds sway among members of former immigrant groups reviled in their own time. The Irish and the Italians were the Mexicans and Chinese of a hundred years ago. But now many of them have convenient immigrant amnesia.

It might be useful for America's newcomers to stage a version of the one-day strike trumpeted in the nascent days of the women's movement. If those with a green card, those in the process of getting one and those who are just plain illegals didn't show up for work on a single designated day, the third and fourth generations would get a terrifying taste of how the nation runs without them. Vegetables rotting on the vine, hotel sheets going unchanged, working parents with no child care, restaurants with no busboys.

Our attitude toward immigrants is paradoxical. As Roger Daniels writes in his history "Guarding the Golden Door," most Americans find themselves "on the one hand reveling in the nation's immigrant past and on the other rejecting much of its immigrant present." They also find themselves reviling illegal immigration and yet benefiting from its underground work culture, the jobs that need doing that we don't want to do ourselves.

But there's one potentially dirty job that new arrivals to our soil can never fill, and that's the presidency. The Constitution says that only "a natural-born citizen" can hold the position. It's a vestige of the Founders' fears that some errant Pole or Brit would slither into the highest office and turn us into an adjunct of Europe again. Those times are long past. And at a juncture when it has become harder and harder to persuade young people to enter politics, when affluent white men scarcely seem the ideal standard-bearers for a polyglot population and when 12 percent of the country's people are originally from elsewhere, the notion of limiting the presidency only to those born here has become a codified backwater of prejudice.

Of course, it's not easy amending the Constitution. It's happened only 17 times since 1791, probably because it requires two-thirds majorities in both houses of Congress as well as ratification by at least three quarters of the states. And this particular amendment requires a groundswell of sentiment that new-minted Americans are just as good as the rest of us, which may be why it's been doomed many times over our history.

Modern efforts have usually been tied to some particular individual. But suggesting that the Constitution should be amended so Austrian-born Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger or Canadian-born Gov. Jennifer Granholm can run for president isn't the way to go. Good policy isn't made one boldface name at a time. Stem-cell research, for instance, should be supported because of its benefits for everyone, not because Ronald Reagan had Alzheimer's.

On the other hand, it helps to give a face to an issue. And this one has millions, the faces of kids in public-school classrooms, kids from El Salvador, Pakistan, Bosnia, beginning the journey of education and attachment that our great-grandparents made. There are all those young foreign-born soldiers serving in Iraq, all those toddlers adopted in China or Russia. There are all those people who are born-again Americans, who chose the place instead of becoming citizens through an accident of birth.

Explain to the smart little girl from Guatemala that no matter how hard she works, how much she cares, she's shut out of the big job. Explain it to the mother who lifted a listless kid from a crib in Siberia and now has a son who loves baseball and Fourth of July fireworks. Once they've become citizens there's no way to justify the exclusion; in a country allegedly built on fairness, it's just not fair. Maybe one of the very best places to look for the presidents of the future is among the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. After all, as any religious person can tell you, converts often make the most passionate believers.