Your country has a few questions

I have a few questions. Are you a man? Are you between the ages of 17 and 45? Are you an American citizen or declared your intent to become one?

If the answers to those three questions are “yes,” then congratulations! You are a member of the American militia. No, really. That is exactly what Title 10, Section 246 of the United States Code — federal law — provides. As it has for more than a century.

That may be a shock to some. And it presents some interesting questions for those who claim the Second Amendment is tied to service in the militia. However, plenty of ink has been used arguing about firearms over the past month, so I’ll take it in a different direction.

The other big political to-do this week (well, one of them) dealt with an announcement by the Department of Commerce. What did they say? Brace yourself: They have decided to include a question on the 2020 Census about citizenship status.

The 2020 U.S. Census will add a question about citizenship status, a move that brought swift criticism from opponents who said it would intimidate immigrants and discourage them from participating. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

This lead to hue, cry, and lawsuits. The attorney general of California — a man who has uninterruptedly held political office since 1990 (back when he was old enough to be in the militia) — filed a breathless complaint against the Census Bureau. The argument boils down to a belief that such questions will scare immigrants away from participation, undercount the geographic areas where they live, and thus harm immigrant-heavy states in terms of legislative apportionment and resource allocation.

That raises some different questions. If an immigrant family is unwilling to complete a relatively benign civic duty, are there other responsibilities imposed by society that they would avoid? Would a young man in that family refuse service in the militia or draft if called? Or, if they are concerned about disclosing a not-quite-legal immigration status, isn’t that something worth knowing?

Through the 1950 census, a question on citizenship was asked. On the “American Community Survey,” a statistical study undertaken annually by the federal government to map social trends between censuses, they ask a citizenship question. And in 2000, under the Clinton Administration, 16 percent of American households received a “long form” census questionnaire which asked about citizenship and country of birth.

Nefarious it is not. Indeed, both the City of Portland and some state legislators believe we need to create specialized offices assisting “New Americans.” Regardless of whether you believe that a good or bad idea, having official data on citizenship demographics can help inform those arguments.

The reality is the lawsuit over the census reflects a separate failure of government. Our immigration system is broken. Those on the right are quick to argue — often correctly — that an overbearing federal regulatory bureaucracy stifles growth and creativity. When countless hours and dollars are spent on conspicuous compliance, larger businesses are able to outlast small ones. Economies of scale are a real thing.

Those criticisms equally apply to immigration. Would-be Americans should not be forced to spend thousands of dollars navigating Byzantine rules governing an alphabet soup of visa types. E-3, H-1B, V — all are different ways foreigners can come to the United States legally. But in generations past — Irish, Italians, Cubans, Vietnamese — came without piles of paperwork and layers of legalese. They were poor. They uprooted themselves in pursuit of the American Dream and the better life it promised.

That same beacon shines brightly today. If we can reform our immigration system, then distractions about the census go away. That does not mean simply giving up on enforcing laws; it means fixing them and following through. High walls are not anathema to America, as long as they are coupled with wide gates.

New immigrants should be able to come to our country via a clear, straightforward process; if they refuse to do so, then they should not be welcome. But once they get here in accordance with our laws, we should expect them to shoulder the same responsibilities incumbent upon all of us. That may include serving under arms or filling out a form. If the duties of an American are too much to ask, then maybe we should be asking whether they really want to be here.


Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.