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Gingrich’s Citizenship Problem

By Daren Jonescu

After the November 22 Republican debate in Washington, D.C., many conservatives took issue with Newt Gingrich’s proposal to establish a system of local boards of review to assess the cases of illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States for twenty-five years.  While his opponents on stage chose to focus on concerns that the plan would entrench a powerful new “magnet” for illegal aliens, others isolated the strangest aspect of Gingrich’s proposal, which was his explicit description of such long-established illegal immigrants as “law-abiding citizens.”  How, people reasonably asked, can an illegal alien who has never been granted U.S. citizenship be called a “citizen” at all, let alone a “law-abiding” one?

Some of us shied away from putting too much emphasis on this odd phraseology.  In my own case, I considered that “law-abiding citizen” is a hackneyed expression, and hence the kind of term that a candidate might carelessly toss off in the heat of a debate, particularly when he is coming under fire for his position, and is attempting to defend himself on the spur of the moment.  In the context of a debate about illegal immigration, paths to citizenship, and the like, it was a poorly chosen phrase, indeed.  Nevertheless, as I have devoted some energy to debunking the myth of Gingrich as a great debater who would mop the floor with Obama in a one-on-one confrontation, it was not at all surprising to me that the candidate most inclined to present himself (and, presumably, to see himself) as a great rhetorician would be the one most likely to produce the most absurd logical gaffes.

Suddenly, however, in the wake of the December 10 debate in Iowa, it is no longer feasible or reasonable to hold our fire on Gingrich’s peculiar use of the notion of citizenship.  For he has invoked the notion again — not, this time, in the context of a heated self-defense, but rather in the context of a prepared initial answer to a question that he had to have known was coming.  And this time he referred to long-established illegal aliens as “citizens” not once, but twice — one time in the same sentence in which he said the purpose of his plan was not to create a path to citizenship.  Here are the references from Iowa:

… somebody who’s been here for twenty-five years, somebody who has been a good local citizen, may well belong to your church….

… [T]he person has to have been here for twenty-five years, have genuine ties to the community, be a good citizen… and they still don’t get citizenship, they get residency….

In light of this reiteration and strengthening of his previous absurdity, it is time to ask what exactly Gingrich is getting at with all this talk of silver anniversary illegals as “citizens” — albeit, as he has now taken pains to emphasize, not as the citizenship-holding type of citizens.  Surely Gingrich is not as confused as his rhetoric on this issue makes him appear.  What, then, is he up to?

If one wishes to short-circuit criticism of a proposal, one tried and true method is to coat it in carefully chosen keywords that pre-empt the most forceful points that could be made against it, creating a hazy filter around the most objectionable aspects of the proposal, just as Hollywood directors used to film actors in close-up through gauze, in order to soften their features.

Obama’s recent revival of the traditional socialist canard about “fairness” is a clear enough example of this method.  Free peoples, naive individualists that they tend to be, have often been victimized by arguments for increased “fairness.”  After all, who wouldn’t like the world to be fairer?  Who wouldn’t like everyone to get a fair “opportunity” (another clever keyword) at success?  Those who think loosely about these questions, or who take their leaders’ words at face value, are somewhat stymied in their criticism of a policy when it is forcefully defended under the rubric of “fairness.”  (Unfortunately for Obama, the “fairness” trick has probably outlived its usefulness.  Aside from the leftist choir who, when they hear or use that word, are explicitly thinking of economic redistribution, it is likely that most people these days are immune to the argument from fairness.  Too much history has cued most listeners to the fact that when a liberal uses that word, he is just masking his call for bigger government and broader entitlements.  Hence, this particular iteration of the rhetorical device in question is no longer effective.)

In the case of Gingrich’s immigration proposal, the chosen keyword appears to be “citizen.”  By repeatedly defending the case for local assessments of long-established illegal aliens on the grounds that they have been living as good “citizens” for too long to consider deporting them now, he seeks to undermine  critics by creating the strongest possible sympathy for the people in question.  That none of the other candidates, in either of the debates in which he has used this device, latched onto this misuse of the word “citizen” and turned it against Gingrich, is perhaps a measure of the strategy’s effectiveness.

The word citizen can, of course, be used casually, colloquially, or metaphorically.  In the context of a debate about immigration, however, it can mean only one thing: a person due all the rights and protections that citizenship confers on individuals living within a nation.  By using the word colloquially in this context, Gingrich obscures the distinction between casual usage and literal meaning, thus pre-emptively weakening his opponent’s position by implying that people can at once be illegal immigrants and “law-abiding citizens” — with the further implication that such people have earned a special status that ought to override ordinary considerations of illegality.  In other words, by designating these people as good “citizens” of a sort, he advances the case for legalization without need of a rational argument, inasmuch as citizenship, the stronger principle, already implies the weaker notion of mere legality.  That is to say, the logic behind his rhetoric is reducible to this: People who have lived illegally in the U.S. for twenty-five years, and have committed no further crimes, are already good citizens; hence, the official stamp of legality is just a formality at this point, and is therefore an inescapable choice.

Gingrich should not be allowed to escape the important questions about his proposal by means of such rhetorical tactics.  Those questions include the following:

1.  The local boards of review of which he speaks would have the power, not only to grant, but also to reject, an alien’s application for legal status, a fact obliquely noted in Gingrich’s written outline of the plan.  What illegal immigrant would voluntarily place himself at the mercy of such a board?  And if not voluntarily, by what mechanism would people be brought before the board?

2.  What kinds of ugly local battles will develop under such a Pollyannaish scheme?  (Who will serve on the board?  What ethnicities will be represented?  In what proportions?  In the case of a rejected application, who will be responsible for enforcing the decision?  Will subsequent litigation by the affected family be allowed?  If not, why not?)

3.  Since Gingrich is not merely arguing for the establishment of such boards, but is providing the case for legalization, is he not really proposing the boards as mere rubber stamps for his declaration that such illegal immigrants have already become de facto legal immigrants?

4.  Since the twenty-five year time frame is just Gingrich’s arbitrary number (and is not featured in his written summary), and since the review committee process is to be determined by Congress, won’t there be endless debate tending towards a continual lowering of the minimum required residence period — or, for that matter, towards adding any number of other benchmarks for qualifying for legalization?

5.  What can of worms would legalization of this sort open up (particularly in light of question 4) with regard to all the family relations of those who have been legalized, including those relations who moved across the border only recently, or who might wish to do so in the future?

6.  Would, and should, states accept uniform standards from Washington regarding the mandate and methods of such committees?

Like so many of Gingrich’s “big ideas,” this one may have more rhetorical strength than practical plausibility.  It is clearly more calibrated to position him well with Hispanic voters in the general election than to win support in the Republican primaries.  For now, therefore, he seeks to blunt his conservative critics’ points with equally strong rhetoric about deporting newly arrived illegals.  What will he do when he faces a different kind of audience, and is being critiqued from the opposite side?  Another cup of green conservatism, anyone?

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One response to “Gingrich’s Citizenship Problem

  1. Roman Shinabarger December 21, 2011 at 8:51 am

    I like this web blog it’s a master piece! Glad I noticed this on google.

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