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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

How about we make everyone reapply for U.S. citizenship

"If we do change the rules of citizenship, I'd prefer we bounce folks on their merits rather than the pedigree of their folks," writes Lane Filler. Credit: Donna Grethen / Tribune Media Services

You say you're a United States citizen. I say let's see that IQ test before we decide.

There's talk in Republican circles about changing the rules of citizenship. The 14th Amendment says people born here are citizens, even if their parents are here illegally.

It's called birthright citizenship, and it's how we've done it since 1868, when the 14th Amendment was ratified, mostly to make sure ex-slaves and their children weren't denied citizenship.

But as the rhetoric on the melting pot moves toward a rolling boil, efforts have sprung up to end birthright citizenship. A platform declaring that children born of parents here illegally should not be citizens found its way into the 1996 Republican Party platform, but presidential candidate Bob Dole and vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp, those old softies, repudiated the concept.

Still, the idea of changing the rules to exclude the offspring of illegal immigrants keeps popping up. It's now part of the Texas Republican Party platform, has again gotten support as a plank in the national party platform, and legislation has been introduced in Congress and at least 14 states to set the "anchor babies" adrift.

If we're changing the rules, I say let's do it right. Let's have everybody reapply for citizenship -- all of us -- and make the vetting comprehensive.

"Ma'am, I can see you've been a law-abiding citizen for 78 years, but it says here that not only do you pay for groceries by writing a check, you don't fill out the check until the cashier tells you the total. You don't even fill in the date while she scans. You're driving other shoppers insane. We have to ask you to leave."

People who are really proud their families came over on the Mayflower should go, too.

"Your family has enjoyed hundreds of years of limitless opportunity, and failed to come up with a single achievement more impressive than how you got here? You've had your chance at America. Scram."

Then there are the people that have really loud, personal cellphone conversations in public.

"It's been reported you held a graphic, 26-minute phone conversation about getting a boil lanced while in line at the bank. We don't care where you go, but you can't stay here."

People that can't define the difference between astrology and astronomy? Gone. Those who drive in the breakdown lane during a traffic jam, then try to merge back in? So gone.

Of course, we could take a different approach. Rather than redefining citizenship in a way that would make about 10 percent of people born here nationless, we could act as if we understand that immigration is a form of self-selection bringing us the best, most motivated people -- and made us the nation we are. We could consider that, for a parent whose family faces hopelessness and starvation, taking a huge risk to get into the United States, even illegally, is morally justified.

We could acknowledge, as President Ronald Reagan did when he granted amnesty to 4 million undocumented people, that once they become part of our national fabric, it is too painful to rip them out. We could recognize that expelling 11 million undocumented folks would demolish the housing market by emptying 3 million more units, and deprive us of a population segment young and fertile enough to give us some hope of funding Social Security and Medicare in future decades. And we could create a legal immigration system accommodating enough to make illegal immigration unattractive.

If we don't want to do all that, fine. But if we do change the rules of citizenship, I'd prefer we bounce folks on their merits rather than the pedigree of their folks. Isn't that the real American way?

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.