Michael Lind: Give legal residents a chance to become citizens fast





[Michael Lind is a fellow at the New America Foundation.]

WITH the new immigration package already beginning to unravel, it would be wonderful if we could find one element of reform that everyone involved in the immigration debate can agree on.

Here’s my candidate: lower the residency requirement for legal immigrants who seek to become citizens from five years to two.

This is not a new idea. In fact, it’s 217 years old. In 1790, Congress passed the first naturalization act, which imposed a two-year residency requirement for legal immigrants. Alarmed by the French Revolution, Congress subsequently changed the residency requirement to five years with the Naturalization Act of 1795. Growing fear of foreign infiltration during the wars of the French Revolution inspired Congress to enact the Naturalization Act of 1798, which increased the residency requirement to 14 years and permitted the president to deport dangerous aliens.

In addition to worrying about subversive Frenchmen, Federalist Party lawmakers wanted to deny suffrage to Irish immigrants, who tended to vote for their rivals, the Jeffersonian Republicans. After Thomas Jefferson was elected president, his allies in Congress in 1802 reduced the residency requirement. And that’s why, 200 years later, legal immigrants cannot become naturalized citizens unless they reside for five years in the United States, with at least half of that time spent physically on United States soil.

[HNN: Lind goes on to argue that reducing the time it takes for a legal resident to become a citizen would give legal residents a real advantage over illegal residents. That's important for fairness: illegal residents shouldn't be able to gain citizenship at the same pace as people who legally and patiently waited their turn.]


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