When  Jose Merced Lucero was born near Taos Pueblo in Nuevo Mexico in 1829, little did he know he was about to become – more or less by default – a citizen of the United States. In 1848, at the end of the Mexican-American War, the Mexican Cession ceded the territory to the United States, and Merced – previously a citizen of Mexico – was offered the choice: become a U.S. citizen or leave his land and go to Mexico.

Official citizenship for the people of the New Mexico Territory wouldn’t come until after statehood, when Merced probably had U.S. citizenship as defined in the Fourteenth Amendment (1868): “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” Other amendments would later factor into the debate about citizenship for conquered people, but in 1848, such policies had been treaty rather than by acts of Congress.

Immigration: Historical and ethical issues

Immigration had always been contentious for the colonies and the newly formed United States. But the problem of citizenship through immigration vs. citizenship by cession or purchase (Mexican Cession, Louisiana Purchase and Alaska) would plague the country for decades. The 18th century idea that expansion of territory was our manifest destiny did not include open immigration. Various laws enacted over the years have sought to restrict the immigration of specific nationalities, whether it was the Immigration Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that excluded Chinese immigration or the Immigration Act of 1924 that established quotas for Eastern and Southern Europeans. Meanwhile, those already living in the country as conquered people living on reservations were finally granted full citizenship, including the right to vote, by the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.

Today’s controversial debate about who should be allowed to become citizens – indeed, who should be allowed to enter the country and seek citizenship – raises several philosophical questions apart from the legal considerations.

Consider the issue of how citizenship is granted. While becoming a conquered or ceded people could mean instant citizenship whether desired or not, escaping from a war-torn or otherwise dangerous country and seeking asylum in the United States can be grounds for suspicion, detention, and deportation. Closed borders and zero tolerance are not new policies, but they may have some unintended consequences that must be looked at.

Who benefits from immigration – legal or otherwise?

Consider Wyoming in particular. According to the American Immigration Council, in 2016 “nearly 4 percent of Wyoming residents are immigrants, while nearly 5 percent are native-born U.S. citizens with at least one immigrant parent.” Also from the AIC: “...immigrant workers comprised 3.6 percent of the labor force in 2015… (and) nearly 13 percent of the state’s building maintenance workers and groundskeepers are immigrants, while Wyoming’s hotel and food services industry relies on immigrants for 11 percent of its employees.” Beyond paying taxes and otherwise supporting our economy, immigrants are an integral part of Wyoming's population.

And consider what adding citizenship questions to the next U.S. census might mean. Population numbers are used for everything from making public policy to the allocation of federal funds. Fear of detention or deportation could cause skewed numbers that can affect us all.

The long-term consequences remain to be seen. But the fact is that the economic “benefits” of having a large pool of low-wage laborers will be lost (benefits the laborers do not participate in, other than to be willing to start at the bottom of the economic and social hierarchies, with little more than the hope that they too might be able to move up).

Immigration by choice or default

Thanks to his being ceded to the United States, my great-great grandfather Merced became a citizen, and all his descendants are now “persons born ... in the United States” and enjoy all the benefits of citizenship, including due process, equal rights, the right to vote, and other constitutional rights that are conferred upon citizens. Those of my family who are now citizens by accident of birth benefit from Merced’s forced naturalization without having to fight for it or even think about applying for naturalization.

Jose Merced Lucero is listed in U.S. censuses from 1850, his first census; to 1860, when he is listed as owning land; to1870, by which time his occupation is listed as “vagabond.” I will never know how Merced felt about citizenship being thrust upon him, how disrupted his life might have been. No explanation can be established for his progression from landowner to vagabond, other than that perhaps his land became part of tribal holdings that had to be relinquished. His descendants have scattered across the country – Colorado, California, Wyoming – moving about freely, as is their constitutional right.

But 150 years from Merced’s experience, we still struggle with immigration and naturalization issues. Immigration reform is important, but a zero-tolerance policy cannot be the answer. U.S. News reported in June 2018: “According to a new Pew Research Center study, “Shifting Public Views on Legal Immigration Into the U.S.,” support for increasing legal immigration has increased 22 percentage points from 10 to 32 percent since 2001.” The trend is becoming obvious. It's time we came down on the right side of history. Denying new  populations entrance is no better an answer than claiming vassals by fiefdom.

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