Lately, there has been a quite serious- and quite shrill- "discussion" in this country over what, exactly, constitutes being an American. Legally, an American is anyone born in the country, born to at least one American parent, or who goes through the arduous, notoriously red-tape-laden naturalization and citizenship process. Pretty simple.
That's apparently not the discussion we're having. Instead, we've found ourselves in something more of what an American should be. There are votes- contentious ones- on healthcare for 9/11 responders that might be illegal immigrants. The term "anchor babies" has been rampant. For some time, there has been heated talks about who and what constitutes a 'real' American, as some Americans are apparently fake. Like they were created in a wax museum or something.
And let's not even get into the ongoing yammering about Obama's birth certificate.
The legal part of what should constitute an American, I've already covered earlier. That needs to be made easier. But even that strayed into the deeper philosophical debate about what an American should be.
So let's just go in with both feet on it. Let's answer two things. What is America as a concept, and what constitutes a 'real' American.
America as a concept, to me at least, is not bound by its borders or its legal intricacies. Rather, it is its ideals. That is what it was always really meant to be. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A government of the people, by the people, for the people. Laws can be changed. The Constitution can be changed. The people will absolutely change. The world will change in ways that our forefathers never could have even comprehended. Surely, George Washington never envisioned me making words appear like magic on a screen by pressing buttons labeled with letters, which is exactly what I'm doing right now. Even doing it on paper was beyond him. There weren't even typewriters back then. Thomas Jefferson never foresaw something to replace the horse-and-buggy. Or paved roads connecting the country.
They surely didn't foresee a way to keep track, on a day-to-day basis, of just who was crossing over the border. Even today, there are many international borders that aren't well-marked. There's no real way to know when you've crossed a border- no landmarks, no checkpoints. The Tuareg live on this, crossing the various borders in the Sahara as if they didn't exist-- and to them, they don't. Illegal immigration was the furthest thing from their minds. And besides, their forefathers didn't come in under the grandest of circumstances, so who were they to judge? If you're on our side, welcome aboard. (As long as you're a white landowner, of course.)
A 'real' American was and is, in my mind and in the minds of our forefathers, simply anyone that does whatever they are able to do, to the best of their ability, to make America the best possible place it can be, in their own small way. I don't care if you're not "legal". I in fact don't care if you have never even set foot in this country. Do you hold true to the same ideals? Do you bust your butt, day in and day out, to improve the life in whatever fashion of not only yourself, but your family, your friends, people you've never met, even people that may question your commitment or your very right to be here? Do you make a commitment to better the United States, to make it a beacon of freedom- true, honest freedom, not just 'freedom to do whatever you want unless I don't like it'? Welcome aboard.
Conversely, someone that is not a 'real' American does not do, or attempt to do, these things. They make little to no effort to improve their country, themselves. When their country calls them, they respond with silence. They consume America's resources and do not make, nor have they ever made, a good-faith effort to put any of them back. (Trying and failing to find a job is a good-faith effort. Unemployment happens. Sometimes jobs and applicants just don't match up and somebody gets the butt end of it. But if you're not even sending out applications, that's another thing entirely.)
Basically, you don't have to be American to be American, but you can be American without being American. If that makes sense.
Now, you're probably asking 'what do you mean you don't care if someone's never set foot in this country? Those guys can't POSSIBLY be American! That doesn't even make any sense!'
There are those people that seek to improve, however they can, not just their own country, but all the others as well. The most successful at this tend to be among the world's most revered: Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, Norman Borlaug, Dag Hammerskjold. These are not just people of their own country, but in fact citizens of the entire world. They are Polish, Swedish, Macedonian, South African, but also Dutch, Chinese, Australian, Argentinian, Tunisian, Qatari... and American as well. They're American; we just share them with everybody else.
Which is what leads to the most maddening part of this all, the recent failed vote to supply health benefits to 9/11 first responders. You would think that this wouldn't even be a question. They're 9/11 first responders, for Pete's sake. Give them whatever they want. They've earned it. However, the vote was turned from a simple-majority vote to a two-thirds vote to avoid an amendment being attached that would deny the benefits to illegal immigrants.
The vote was a majority in favor, but they couldn't clear two-thirds, and the bill was killed.
Consider that a second. There is someone in this country that is so despising of those that are not officially Americans that it does not matter to them if those same people laid their lives on the line to save American lives during one of America's darkest hours. It does not matter. There are people that will jeopardize and ultimately deny health benefits to ALL 9/11 first responders because one or more of them might not be here legally. None of them necessarily are. One of them just MIGHT be illegal, and that is apparently enough for some ungrateful soul to turn on them all.
If you are willing to go through that for the sake of the United States, if you are willing to lay your lives on the line for the sake of people that may later turn on you for the sake of political expediency, I really don't care in the slightest how you got here. You are welcome in my country. You are an American. You are, in fact, an American hero.
You are, at least, more American than they.